(Because, honestly, I could talk about narrative parallels basically forever.)
Though the first time Supernatural broke the fourth wall was in 4x18 (“The Monster At the End of This Book”), the show has always been a narratively self-aware and referential show, a tendency that has only deepened over time.
The show has frequently featured parallels for Sam, Dean, and the brotherly relationship over the years — the most obvious one was hammered into our heads as a key plot point of S5 — as well as occasionally featuring parallels of secondary characters. But it’s not until this season that I can think of a secondary character who has been paralleled as heavily as Castiel has, to the point where the narrative is basically treating him as a third lead who happens to be absent a lot of the time.
Before we get to Cas, though, let’s go back in time. Let’s go back to S1 and the Winchesters.
Season 1 starts off as a show with the main focus on the Monster of the Week (MotW) episodes with a driving seasonal arc that slowly unfolds over time. In S1, our action arc is Finding John with the emotional arc of “what’s more important — family or revenge?” John is in one corner, representing revenge, Dean is in the other corner, representing family, and Sam is the one who has to decide what side he’s on (he chooses family).
The parallels that we get this season mostly serve to illuminate Dean and Sam’s characters and they are mostly represented by children — we have the siblings in “Wendigo”, kid-who-wouldn’t-talk in “Dead in the Water” (Dean) that kid in “Bugs” who came back as Samandriel (rep’ing Sam in that episode, which I’m finding hilarious in retrospect), the telekinetic kid in “Nightmare”, the brothers in “Something Wicked”. In the majority of these cases, the parallel was actually spelled out by someone in the episode. Because, hey, it’s a new show. We don’t know how smart our viewers are yet, so we should probably use an anvil and then mention out loud that it’s an anvil. Also, they’re new characters and we don’t know shit about them, so we need to explain in non-boring ways exactly who these people are. In all of these cases, a similar situation was used to tell us something about our main characters — Dean is a protective older brother, Dean is still traumatized by his mom’s death, Sam wanted freedom from his dad’s controlling nature, John could have been a worse father than he actually was but was still pretty crappy.
Season 2 we have Dean’s Secret which turns into “What’s Wrong With Sammy?” (TM). That’s our driving seasonal arc. The emotional arc is Dean and Sam (but mostly Dean, lbr) dealing with John’s death and also Dean’s inability to let go of his brother.
Now, the parallels shift to match the new circumstances. In “Everybody Loves a Clown”, we meet Jo, who also lost her (beloved, hunter) father not too long ago. “Bloodlust” features Gordon, who had to kill his beloved sibling because she turned into a monster (just like Dean is afraid he’ll have to do with Sam). “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things” is about the horrors of bringing back someone who should be dead; “Simon Said” has an evil brother that ends up dead; there’s an evil sibling in “Playthings” as well, I believe, and the non-evil sibling kills herself so that the murderous sibling has company. We also have ‘can people-turned-into-monsters be redeemed?’ (for Sam) featuring Lenore, Madison, ghost girl in “Roadkill”, priest ghost ordering deaths in “Houses of the Holy”, etc.
Sam dies; Dean sells his soul, and we have a new set of issues. The action arc of S3 is Trying To Save Dean. The emotion arc is Dean and Sam coming to terms with Dean’s potential impending death.
Bela is a major parallel for Dean throughout S3. Orphan; thief; embracing hedonism to cope with a fast-approaching death The big difference between the two of them being that Bela doesn’t have a Sam. Bela is basically telling us that Dean needed Sam just as much as Sam needed Dean. Sam is the place where Dean was able to put his heart while he was growing up. Bela didn’t have that; just herself and her pain.
Apart from my deep love of Bela and Ruby (and “Mystery Spot”; that episode was fantastic), S3 is (by far) my least favorite season, so we’re going to kill Dean off right now and skip to S4. I’m sure there are more parallels but I’m moving on.
The action arc of the season is Stopping Lucifer From Rising. The emotional arc is Dean dealing with his damage from hell and Sam coping with his on-going damage caused by what he did to try to bring Dean back and his failure at said rescue.
In S4, we finally have a chessboard. In the previous seasons, we had the scattered hunters working against a great plot of the demons, but now the angels are on the board. We have our loyal children to absent fathers — Dean, Ruby, Castiel. We have the ones rebellious of daddy’s plan — Sam, Ruby, Anna (Ruby is on both lists because she pretended to be a rebel but was actually a loyal child; up until the endgame of S4, the writers could have taken her either way). Like Jo and Bela, Castiel started off as a Dean parallel.
There are episodic parallels as well — the dude in “Metamorphosis” (for Sam), for instance — but the heavy focus is on the season-long parallels. In the end, Lucifer rises and S5 has our heavy-weight parallel that the show talks and talks about: Dean as Michael and Sam as Lucifer.
The action arc of S5 is preventing the Apocalypse, while the emotion arc features Dean and Sam rejecting the labels that the angels and demons are trying to put on them — it is, as Chuck-maybe-God says, about choosing to believe in and love each other rather than allowing themselves to be used by the powers of ‘fate’. Which is why Sam says ‘yes’ and Dean says ‘no’ — because they’re reversing the choices/mistakes of their parallels. Lucifer said ‘no’ to God and fell, while Michael said ‘yes’ and cast his brother out.
Season 6 doesn’t really have an action arc (or, it could be said that it has several mini-action arcs) but it does have a strong emotional arc for Dean — coping with paranoia and betrayal. He starts the season isolated — Bobby is lying to him, Cas and Sam simply aren’t around — embracing the ‘normal life’ that Sam told him to live because he feels like he has no other choice. Yes, he’s grown somewhat attached to it but, as Lisa says, as soon as Sam showed up again, he was destined to leave it behind.
In S6, Sam and Cas mirror each other — the season starts out with Dean having only the shell of his brother and ends with him having only the shell of his best friend. Cas ends up with too many souls, while Sam starts out one soul short.
In “Two and a Half Men” we have
changelings shapeshifters (thanks doctorkpepper!) deceiving normal women in order to father children on them so that they can steal them later. It looks like their husband but isn’t. In “Live Free”, Dean is a temporary monster who betrays ‘his’ nest. In “All Dogs Go To Heaven”, the dude looks like a dog but isn’t; in “Clap Your Hands”, the main fairy to worry about is posing as a UFO expert. The inside doesn’t match the outside; Sam isn’t Sam. Then Sam gets his soul back.
The shift here is subtle — unexpected things/people become dangerous (betrayal remains a big theme). The virgin is turned into Eve, Mother of All. The bug Eve creates controls people and makes them betray people. Bug-monsters incubate in people in “Unforgiven” as well. It’s the silent brother who has become the dangerous monster in “Mommy Dearest”.
Castiel was lying to them. He was working with Crowley and he will also take something inside himself that will turn him into a monster.
If Season 2 explored grief, S7 wallows in grief and regret. The action arc is dealing with the Levis; but this relates directly to the emotion arc — dealing with the mess that Cas left behind when he died (which includes the damage of Sam’s wall being removed). Flutiebear is in the process of writing an entire essay series that touches on how the monsters of S7 are like shells and the embodiment of grief. The theme of grief gets reinforced mid-season when Bobby is killed.
It would be fascinating to know when, exactly, Carver’s vision for S8 started to mix with Gamble wrapping up S7. For a few reasons but they start with a little episode called “Repo Man”.
Because the blatant Dean/Cas relationship parallels don’t start in S8. They start here in S7. Jeffery and his demon are an inverted, horrifying (especially to Dean) version of Dean and his angel. Human and a supernatural creature. Explicitly one-sided romantic — “love of my life” Jeffrey says but the demon thought of him as nothing but a student. This is one of Dean’s fears come to life: rejection from the person who gave him his new-found purpose when he came back from the dead in S4. This is a parallel that digs into Dean and burns him.
“Repo Man”, notably, was written by Ben Edlund, who gave us “Everybody Hates Nazis” and Aaron in S8.
Two episodes later, Cas comes back. Here is where Dean begins to turn the lessons he’s learned over the course of S7 into actions — some good (“you did the best you could”) and some bad (“no one cares that you’re broken”). Castiel does what he couldn’t do at the start of S7 — he redeems himself to Dean and Sam by taking Sam’s pain onto himself.
Season 8 has an action arc of the tablets/Kevin/etc. The emotion arc, I would say judging by the season thus far, is about acceptance and understanding. We start with Sam and Dean about as far away from each other as they’ve ever been — Sam is still half with Amelia, Dean still has one foot in Purgatory. But we also have Cas, our wild card. It’s no coincidence that Amelia gets compared with Benny rather than with Cas — Dean sees Amelia as a threat; Sam sees Benny as a threat. Cas is not seen as a threat. He redeemed himself to the Winchesters at the end of S7; as far as Sam and Dean are concerned, Cas has nothing to prove to them (from Castiel’s perspective, things are different, because the Winchesters are not the only people he wronged).
Amelia is like Sam— they’re both on the run from their emotions after a devastating loss. Benny is like Dean — brothers-in-arms who have a dark history and can be ruthless, but are good at heart.
This show has a history of using parallels to illuminate character and to show possibilities. That’s one of the reasons that I’m taking the S8 Dean/Cas parallels so seriously.
Repo Man (yes, S7 but counted for reasons mentioned above). Supernatural creature who ‘saved’ a mortal man and gave him purpose. When that creature was taken away, the man wallowed in pain and grief. Drank too much. Didn’t care whether he lived or died.
Heartache. Supernatural man falls in love with a mortal woman. After living for centuries on his own, he can’t handle the idea of living on after she’s dead.
Blood Brother. Supernatural man falls in love with a mortal woman; gives up everything — his previous home, his devotion to his creator/father — for her. He dies because of this (Benny’s backstory). Then we get a dual parallel back to S6 with a lover who becomes a monster and is stabbed in the back by a brother figure. Ben Edlund always has more than one thing going on in his scripts.
LARP and the Real Girl. Mortal woman encounters a supernatural being who appears frightening at first. They quickly develop a connection that becomes romantic. The supernatural being is being controlled by a hostile force; the mortal woman is required to break the control and free the supernatural woman.
Everybody Hates Hitler. Mortal man must free an ancient supernatural being that is ‘his’ from a hostile force.
Man’s Best Friend With Benefits. Two individuals from different species form a (romantic) bond that others consider excessive and inappropriate. The woman has to free the man she loves, who is being tricked and set-up by a hostile force.
Remember the Titans. A supernatural man has been cursed by hostile forces in ways that are hurting an innocent person; the curse is broken by the embodiment of Hunters, who happens to have feelings for him. If Artemis hadn’t hesitated before shooting her arrow, she might have saved Promethus as well.
Supernatural is not a show that trips and stumbles onto parallels accidentally. It uses them very deliberately. What is the show telling us about Dean and Cas?
Hester tells Dean in S7 that “The very touch of you corrupts. When Castiel first laid a hand on you in Hell, he was lost!” This is not a statement that comes out of nowhere. Contrary to what Dean tries to protest at the end of S6, everyone knows that if anyone is Castiel’s Lois Lane, it is Dean Winchester. The angels know it; the demons know it; Sam knows it.
The parallels remind us that Dean transformed Castiel’s life (“Heartache”) and led him to turn his back on his former family and even kill many of them (“Blood Brother”). Likewise, Castiel gave Dean purpose and without Castiel, Dean was a shell of himself (“Repo Man”). And they warn us that it’s Dean’s turn to save Cas (LatRG/”Everybody Hates Hitler”/MBFWB) but if Dean hesitates to act when the opportunity comes, he may be too late (“Remember the Titans”).