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May 25

Castiel, Autism, and “The Man Who Would Be King”

Originally published November 26 2012 on Tumblr.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Castiel and “The Man Who Would Be King”, especially in light of a quote by Ben Edlund that I posted a while back. So I wanted to write a little bit about Castiel, the ways in which Supernatural has explicitly associated his character with autism, and his favored Heaven in “The Man Who Would Be King.”

I identify very strongly with Castiel in some ways.  I’m autistic, and much of the way he interacts with the world–from his mode of speech to “rusty” “people skills”– is very familiar to me.  At the same time, I don’t see him as autistic–he is the way he is because he’s an angel, he’s not human. I feel that if Castiel were human–that is, if he’d been human from the beginning–he’d be autistic.  But as it is, while I look at his character and see elements of autism, those elements are actually a result of his nonhuman nature. And yes, those elements of Castiel’s character are non human.  Castiel isn’t autistic.  Autism is a human neurological configuration, and I don’t think it’s right to say that a nonhuman character is autistic when in fact the traits we interpret as autism are the result of his nonhuman nature.  However, I do see value in seeing Castiel as similar to an autistic person.

There are two clear associations of Castiel with autism at the end of Season 6.  His favorite heaven is one; the other is the “looks like Columbo, talks like Rain Man” line in the next episode, “Let it Bleed.” That line is probably the most explicit indication we have gotten in the show as to how Castiel is seen by people unaware of his true nature.  We as the audience—as well as the Winchesters and company—understand that he speaks and reacts the way he does because he’s not human and is in many ways unfamiliar with the particularities of humanity.  But it isn’t surprising that the people he interacts with, seeing a white, middle-class American man in his thirties, would thinkautistic. Or in this case, Rain Man—which is pop-cult equivalent to “autistic.” While that line does make me cringe a bit—it feels a bit too much like being asked to laugh at how “weird” Cass is, while explicitly associating that weirdness with autism—I do think it’s a realistic portrayal of how Cass is seen by those who don’t know he’s an angel.

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“There isn’t one heaven.  Each soul generates its own paradise.  I favor the eternal Tuesday afternoon of an autistic man who drowned in a bathtub in 1953.”

I love this scene in “The Man Who Would Be King”, and the fact that Castiel’s favorite Heaven is that of an autistic man.  When I first saw this, my reaction was “Wow, YES.”  It felt like a subtle and positive acknowledgement. It was some time after I watched this that I was looking up Castiel’s line in that scene to see what kind of analysis on it existed—and I found this quote from Ben Edlund:

“The way he interprets that character, there’s a quotient of autism in it. He’s got a very nice grasp on a sort of nonhuman delivery, but it’s very endearing.”

(I originally wrote this essay as a defense of this quote, because it is probably my favorite thing he or anyone professionally associated with the show hasever said about Castiel. That quote was actually the moment where I went from just enjoying Ben Edlund’s writing to really starting to become a fan of him.)

Given what Edlund says here, it seems pretty clear that placing Castiel in an autistic man’s heaven was absolutely deliberate.  And the fact that he chose that specific way to point up something he saw in the way the character was portrayed, to me, says so much. In this scene where Castiel is –for the first time in the show– associated with an autistic person, it’s portrayed as beautiful and good and appropriate in the best possible way.  There’s no distancing or othering of Cass here. Could you laugh at it?  Sure.  But I don’t feel like the audience is being asked to laugh at Cass here—just perhaps to laugh at the appropriateness of his choice of heaven.  I don’t think Castiel has ever seemed so genuinely at peace and happy as when he first returns to that heaven. This is Castiel’s sanctuary, where he feels most at home.  It’s generally true that the place where we feel most at home is also the place where we can most be ourselves, and we can conclude that this is probably true of Castiel as well. This episode is all about bringing us closer to Castiel, and this scene is no different. Imagine that place where you feel absolutely at ease, where you don’t have to be anything but who you truly are. This is that place for Castiel. And it’s a good place–or at least, it is at this point.

“Whose heaven is this?”

“Ken Lay’s. I’m borrowing it.”

We see elsewhere in this episode that an angel’s choice of heaven is important.  Raphael chooses to confront Cass in a heaven “borrowed” from Ken Lay. Raphael’s choice of heaven presses the point that an angel’s preferred heaven tells us a lot about who they are. Raphael’s choice of heaven is intended to tell us something about him – how he uses his authority, his relationship with Castiel, the way he confuses God’s will with his personal desires. (“It’s God’s will, because it’s what I want.”) We don’t know too much about Raphael’s personal opinion of humanity—but even if he doesn’t hate humanity the way Lucifer and Uriel did, he clearly doesn’t care.  He wants follow through on the Apocalypse, and if most of humanity gets crushed?  So be it, they’re just little people—they don’t matter. Raphael’s supreme arrogance is reflected in his preferred heaven.  Raphael’s heaven is clearly chosen to highlight comparisons between Raphael and the man whose Heaven he is using.

And if Raphael’s heaven—and whose heaven he identifies with—is important, then the same can be said about Castiel’s preferred heaven. Through Raphael’s heaven, we are explicitly and deliberately asked to identify these as the heavens of individual people—the autistic man and Ken Lay—in a way that suggests that angels choose favorite heavens because they identify in some way with those who create them. Unlike the scenes in Raphael’s heaven, which draw critical attention to Raphael by comparing him to Ken Lay, the scene in Castiel’s favorite heaven is almost lovingly portrayed.  Heaven is Castiel’s home, and here we are shown that the place he felt most at home, the most at peace, in all the universe is in the paradise created by the mind of an autistic man.

Finally, it’s important to remember that Castiel is not a human being. He is an angel, and the traits that make him different are, in terms of the character and the world of Supernatural, not human. Of course, in the real world, we have to interpret a character’s traits in a human light, and we give them a human name. In this case, that name is autism.

I actually have more I want to say about Castiel and autism, particularly the ways in which the “autistic-like” elements of his character are interpreted both by other characters in the show and by the audience. But here I just wanted to focus on the instances in which Castiel’s character was associated with autism by name.

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