The Tragedy of Castiel: A Look Back at ‘Supernatural’s Saving Grace

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“Am I doing the right thing? Am I on the right path?”

Introduced in Supernatural‘s fourth season, the angel Castiel has become a staple of the long-running series. Originally set to guest star in only three episodes, the fan response to the character propelled the beloved angel up to series regular by the next season. He quickly became a favorite, an honorary Winchester, and a character that fans refused to be without.

Castiel’s story has always been a tragic one. A fallen angel still searching for his home — for his purpose — even now. One would have thought that would be with the Winchesters, but that wasn’t always the case. Constantly second-guessing himself and his worth would be two traits synonymous with Cas, but one thing will always be certain — the legion of fans that have always rallied behind him.

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His debut goes down as one of the most epic in television history. “I’m the one who gripped you tight and raised you from perdition,” the angel told a shell-shocked, atheist Dean Winchester, rocking the hunter’s steadfast belief that there was no Heaven and no God. He begins as a righteous warrior of Heaven, present on Earth to follow his orders and follow his orders alone. However, by the end of season 4, we see a changed celestial being. He’s learned of free will and the complexity of right and wrong. This centuries-old being had come to the realization that everything he’s believed in and fought for, everything he’s been told, isn’t the stronghold of rectitude he once believed. And he rebelled against it, giving his life for his choice at the end — the beginning of his self-sacrificial trend.

Often favored as the best season the show ever released — and the end of the road for creator Eric Kripke — season 5 saw the formation of Team Free Will. God has granted Castiel another chance and he’s back on Earth. Heaven — hellbent on the Apocalypse taking place as planned — and Lucifer found a grand adversary in the Winchesters and Castiel as the team sacrificed everything they had, including themselves, to save the world. In the end, Sam and Castiel both lose their lives in their successful mission to lock Lucifer back into his cage.

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However, yet again, God had other plans. Castiel returned at the end of season 5, resurrected. Season 6 began a downward trend for the angel, beginning with retrieving Sam from the depths of Hell, but without his soul. A civil war raged in Heaven, imploding without the presence of its former ruler — the archangel Michael, who was then in Hell with Lucifer. Castiel is away much of the season, fighting his battle against the last remaining archangel, Raphael, for the soul of Heaven and the fate of the Earth, but he’s not alone. He’s teamed up with the new King of Hell, the crossroads demon Crowley, to ensure a weapon so powerful that victory in Heaven would be imminent. In a sudden switch, creators made the Winchesters’ most trusted ally the villain, and it didn’t sit well with fans or the brothers on screen. He betrayed the brothers in the end, instead choosing his mission — and succeeding — but caused irreparable damage to Sam in the process.

In season 7, Castiel is presented as the “new God”, as the souls he’s hijacked from Purgatory strengthen his abilities beyond that of a Seraph. The Leviathan are released after he fails to return them to their eternal prison, and they kill him in the process, as his vessel can no longer contain the power surging beneath it. Many viewers thought this was the end of the road for the trench coat wearing angel — and perhaps it was for a time — but he returns in episode 17, married and in an amnesic state. He remembered nothing of his past transgressions until his memories flooded back, and he recalled what he did to Sam. As repentance, he took the horrors of Hell he’d released from behind the walls of Sam’s mind onto himself, turning into a shell of the grand being he once was. No longer able to fight — or even willing to — Meg the demon looked after him until the Winchesters needed him to win their fight again. This time, Dean and Cas ended up trapped in Purgatory.

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When Dean arrived back to reality at the beginning of season 8, viewers were disappointed to find that instead of Castiel returning with him, it was the vampire, Benny. Castiel was nowhere to be found, and later it is uncovered that he hadn’t allowed himself to be saved; he’d resigned himself to an afterlife of eternal torment in payment for his “wrongdoings” against the Winchesters. However, a few episodes in, a dirty and haggard Castiel appeared again — but how? The angel Naomi had rescued him from the depths of Purgatory and taken control of him, using him to spy on the Winchesters for information as they used the prophet, Kevin Tran, to close the gates of Hell for good. Cas began a similar quest after freeing himself of Naomi’s control, one to seal the gates of Heaven, but in the end, Castiel is betrayed, his grace stolen before he falls to Earth — now human — his brothers and sisters falling like meteors around him.

Human Castiel caused a bit of an uproar from devoted fans of the angel. In his most vulnerable and destitute state, Dean had Cas cast out of the bunker, leaving him to fend for himself with no money, no transportation, not even a change of clothing. He struggled with the mechanics of being human at the beginning of season 9 but finally seemed to start figuring it out before once again being pulled back into the fight. There was something incredibly endearing about a human Castiel, and while the circumstances of his human state weren’t ideal for most viewers, it wouldn’t have been a downfall to keep Cas human and a valued team member. He does eventually steal the grace of another angel, powering himself back up, and then finds himself commanding a group of rebel angels … again. Looking for retribution from the being that ruined his life — Metatron — Castiel succeeded and reclaimed Heaven, but his stolen grace was failing.

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With Dean becoming a demon at the end of season 9 as a result of the Mark of Cain he used to defeat Abaddon, we saw a bit of a fair fight between Cas and Dean in season 10, after Cas got another stolen grace power-up courtesy of Crowley. The season revolved around clearing the Mark of Cain from Dean as he continued to fight the effects of its evil power, but there was good news for Cas. Metatron returned, after having his grace stripped, and he led Cas to what was left of his own grace from the spell a few seasons past. Reminiscent to a scene in season 8, when a mind-controlled Castiel beat Dean into a bloody pulp, we got the opposite here, with a rage-fueled Dean beating Cas to the precipice of death before disappearing.

The Darkness consumed season 11, and Castiel again took a self-sacrificial turn, allowing Lucifer to possess him in hopes of defeating the Darkness, Amara, which brought about the character referred to as “Casifer.” In the end, it was Amara that saved Castiel, ripping Lucifer from his vessel and leaving Castiel in control once again, However, the guilt of freeing Lucifer would consume him … and he set out to right the wrong he had committed.

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Season 12 was the beginning of a new journey for Castiel — a journey with purpose. When word of the child of Lucifer being carried by the human woman Kelly Kline was heard, he set out to stop the atrocity of Lucifer’s Nephilim child being born. The power that being would wield was too great a risk to the Earth and its inhabitants. But in the process, Castiel was convinced of this child’s goodness — he would not be like his father — and so he undertook the task of protecting him, one that ended with him dead at the hands of Lucifer once again.

Castiel began season 13 in The Empty. The Shadow (the powerful being in charge of overseeing the eternal sleep for creatures such as Castiel) begrudgingly released Castiel back to Earth after Jack calls for him, a debt that wouldn’t go unpaid. Along with his task of keeping the now orphaned — and adult — Nephilim, Jack, safe, the fate of Heaven became unknown. The angel Naomi returned, telling Cas that there were no longer enough angels to keep Heaven running, and soon the millions of souls they housed would come crashing to Earth. Unable to recruit the archangel Gabriel to assist with Heaven’s issues before his death in an alternate universe, Heaven’s standing is still not known.

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Lucifer and Michael returned again in season 14, this Michael cold and cruel from an alternate universe, and Castiel went highly underutilized. Still keen on his task to protect the young Nephilim who had lost his grace at the hands of Lucifer, Cas made a deal with The Shadow in exchange for Jack’s life. The Shadow chose to not collect its half of the deal just yet, instead opting to wait until Castiel achieved true happiness. All around the world fans sighed in collective relief knowing that it was unlikely he would ever attain that. With the loss of Jack’s soul still weighing heavy on his mind, along with the death of Mary Winchester at soulless Jack’s hand, Castiel spent much of this season trying to retrieve the Nephilim’s soul before the unexpectedly sinister return of Chuck.

A palpable rift had formed between Castiel and Dean in season 15, as Dean put the blame of his mother’s death on Castiel’s shoulders. While the two have seemingly made peace with one another, what the back half of the season holds is a toss-up. From the previews, it would seem like our hearts are going to break, but would it be Supernatural if they didn’t?

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Regardless of how you feel about the character, it’s undeniable that without the help of Castiel, the Winchesters wouldn’t have made it this far. While he may not have been used to his full potential (or power at times), Cas was instrumental in every one of the Winchesters’ successes since his entrance in the first episode of season 4. Fans tuned in solely for the angel, and many will cite him as the reason they continued to watch the show through the years. The love they showed this character back in season 4 kept the character alive for the next 11 years and the show along with him. While he may not be featured in each and every episode as Sam and Dean are, he is just as crucial an element of the heart of this show that has beat for 15 years.

Supernatural will go down in the history books on November 19, 2020 when its 15th and final season comes to a close. It will go out in its own terms, with the cast and creators closing the curtain before a network ever could. Its story will be told to completion; a rare occurrence in a competitive arena. As the screen fades to black, whatever his fate may be, Castiel will go down as one of the most popular characters of the era, possibly in the fantasy genre as a whole. It would be a shock if Cas’ story doesn’t end with self-sacrifice one final time. Castiel has always been and will always be the embodiment of choosing to do what he feels is right and sometimes being wrong. He taught us it’s okay to veer from the beliefs we were raised with, to choose freedom and a family that doesn’t end with blood, and that it’s never too late to learn and try to be better. Viewers pray for a happy ending for the angel that gave them so much for so long, but regardless of his fate, the love we learned from Castiel will live long after his final scenes.

“Now I realize that there is no righteous path, it’s just people trying to do their best in a world where it is far too easy to do your worst.”

Kaity

Written by

Kaity started with Harry Potter in second grade and it’s been a losing battle ever since, or maybe a winning one ... She lives in New England with a small herd of cats, two dogs, three chinchillas, and one daughter. Her main fandoms are Marvel, The Umbrella Academy, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings, with special emphasis on one vibranium shield-wielding Super Soldier. You can find her on Twitter at @RogersThatCaptn. Contact: Directors@Nerdsandbeyond.com.

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