May 25

Mesopotamia is Canonically Bigger Than the Grand Canyon

Originally published September 17 2013 on Tumblr.


“Yes, they are STILL bothered by the Grand Canyon thing…” (x)

There are two continuity errors in season 8 that have been acknowledged and spoken about with the writers. (These are not, of course, the only ones, but for my purposes, these are the ones that have been definitively confirmed to be errors by TPTB.) The first, of course, is The Grand Canyon Thing, which—as seen above—is still being talked about four months later, and at the time was the subject of uproar that seemed to overshadow the episode itself. The second is Crowley’s Mesopotamia line, which was noticed and the subject of some discussion at the time—with many presuming it was an intentional tip to the possibility that Crowley’s history was not quite what it seemed.  But since then, it’s been more or less forgotten and the revelation in a recent interviewthat it was an error—the writers just thought Mesopotamia sounded cool—has mostly gone unremarked upon. Why this discrepancy?

First, let’s compare the errors. Sam’s “memory” of the Grand Canyon trip in 8×21 conflicts with a statement from Dean in 2×09, “Croatoan”, that he had never been there. It is worth noting that the primary purpose of Dean’s line is to establish his state of mind—it is of little to no significance to the plot of “Croatoan”, and it is of no continuing significance (of any kind) in the show. (The Grand Canyon is referenced twice more, in 3×13 and 4×02, but not in context of the Winchesters’ not having been there.) It is not canonically important symbolically or thematically, nor is it in any way part of a seasonal—let alone multiseasonal—arc. It is an almost entirely throwaway line, nothing more.

Then we have Crowley’s “if you remember our time in Mesopotamia the way I do” line to Naomi in 8×17, “Goodbye Stranger”, which conflicts with the central plot of 6×04, “Weekend at Bobby’s.” The resolution of that episode centered on Crowley being a 17th century Scottish tailor named Fergus. Like the Grand Canyon, Fergus has –to my memory—not been brought up significantly since that episode, barring a vague reference in 6×10 “Caged Heat”. But very unlike the Grand Canyon, Crowley’s history was the essential focus of a relatively recent sixth season episode. It is arguably the most significant fact we know about the character, it is the definition of his history, and changing it could potentially have serious implications for some of the show’s foundational mythology.

It is undeniable that within the canon of the show, the Mesopotamia error far, far overshadows the Grand Canyon error. Yet the Mesopotamia mistake has been easily and quickly forgiven—where it was even noticed—while months later the Grand Canyon mistake still remains a fandom irritant. The reason, of course, is the discrepancy between canon significance and fanon significance—which results in errors being judged disproportionately to their actual canon value. The “Grand Canyon” has been built up in fanon—apparently; I was not aware of this until people started talking about the Huge Mistake in 8×21—into a major symbolic theme in seasons two and three, and an important plot point in the show. Some people envisioned the end of Supernatural being Dean and Sam finally reaching the Grand Canyon. All of this has been extrapolated from Dean’s offhand comment in “Croatoan.” The Grand Canyon has taken on huge symbolic and thematic significance in fanon that simply does not exist in canon.

Crowley’s backstory, on the other hand, has a reasonable amount of significance in canon—albeit significance as applied to a supporting character. The error also has canon implications not only about Crowley, but the nature of demons and the some of the show’s foundational mythology regarding them. Yet there is not a huge amount of fanon importance attached to it, likely owing to Crowley’s—again—being a supporting character. There are, of course, a few who hope that Crowley’s story is not what it seems—whether he be fallen angel or something else—and who were intrigued by the Mesopotamia line. There are also a few who see Crowley’s given history as fundamental to understanding the character, who presumably were not pleased with that line.  But most seem to simply accept Crowley’s story as given, possibly accepting his given history but willing to accept a change if done well. But Crowley’s story has not generally been given any widespread amount of fanon symbolism or thematic importance.

So we see that these two continuity errors are in fact opposites. The Grand Canyon has a great deal of fanon significance, but is vanishingly insignificant in canon. Mesopotamia has very little fanon significance, but holds large implications and is a significant plot error in canon. The difference in reaction between the two would seem to demonstrate that fanon has greater importance to many fans. Which makes sense, as fanon is reinforced constantly through fic, art, meta, and simple discussion. Canon, on the other hand, is presented solely through 20-odd 40-minute episodes per season. Fanon may serve to reinforce canon, but more often fanon expands upon canon, giving form and life to things that canon only mentions in passing.

Now, this is a good thing, and why fanon is so important. This is what fandom is about—taking the skeletal bones of what we are given and wrapping them in flesh, breathing new life into them. But the problem is that sometimes we forget that while canon + fanon together are the currency of fandom, the show itself must deal solely in canon. The importance of canon continuity errors should be tied solely to their importance in canon, not how fanon has added to them. Fanon significance should not be considered in determining how significant the error is. In other words, a mistake that seems huge and unforgivable due to its fanon significance may be an extremely minor canon error. And major canon errors may go virtually unnoticed or be easily forgiven when there is no fanon significance attached to them.

In the end, while mistakes and challenges to established fanon are understandably important to fandom, the mistakes of the show (and its various PTB) must be judged based on their significance in canon. The Grand Canyon is fairly undeniably a continuity error. (Though, like Mesopotamia, there are ways it can be explained.) Yet in terms of actual canon of the show, it is such a minor error that it is fairly worth not much more than an aside in a review or a check on a list of the season’s plot holes and continuity errors. (Truly: People are angry over this Huge Canon Error, which, in perspective, is the writer(s) forgetting one insignificant line in one episode six seasons and one hundred and thirty-five episodes prior. Talk about unrealistic expectations.) But thefanon significance is such that it has taken on outlandish proportions; people are still complaining to the writers about it months later, as if it were a monstrous and obvious deviation from an established plot point instead of a very minor (and understandable) mistake. That is unfairly judging canon continuity errors according to their fanon significance, which is a mistake.

Afternote (aka stuff that didn’t really fit):

Personally, I’m no more bothered by the Mesopotamia thing than I was by the Grand Canyon thing. And actually, I find the Mesopotamia mistake more interesting, because I thought that the Crowley-Naomi scene was intriguing. On the other hand, I just found the Sam “memory” scene unfunny and pointless. I hate defending it, because I really don’t care for it, but I feel obligated.

May 25

Alternate Universe Models & Possible Futures: Authorial Intent in “The End”

Originally published January 26 2014 on Tumblr

This is primarily lengthy excerpts from the 5×04 commentary, as well as an excerpt from an interview with Edlund–which I’ve posted before–on time travel in “The End.” Plus some commentary of my own about what was said. Longish post shorter: Edlund’s detailed explanation in an interview of how time travel and possible futures worked in “The End” tells us much more about authorial intent than his brief and (in full context) ambiguous remark in the commentary about an alternate universe model.

This first excerpt from the commentary explains how the time-travel concept for the episode grew out of an earlier (and more alternate-reality, though they don’t suggest this themselves) clone idea. From 2:20 – 3:23:

Kripke: I seem to remember the first impulse for this episode had nothing to do with Dean travelling into the future. When we originally sat down with you, this was—

Singer: Give away the episode why don’t you.

Kripke: These people have already seen it.

Edlund: If they watch with the commentary on—

Kripke: –they’re losers. But, uh, the first conversation we had about it had nothing to do with travelling into the future. It was about Sam and Dean meeting their clones.

Edlund: Oh my God yes.

Kripke: Remember that?

Edlund: Yeeaaah…

Kripke: And it was going to be—we were calling it “Clone Wars.”

Edlund: “Clone Wars”, yeah.

Kripke: And someone created Sam and Dean clones–

Edlund: Holy crap, that’s right. That conceit was hard to–

Kripke: –and we couldn’t figure out how to break that story. Probably because of its overwhelming stupidity.

Edlund: It might’ve been the stupidity.

Kripke: And then we started talking—I don’t know—and then somehow we made this jump of—somehow we made this jump of clones but if Dean was talking to himself from a different time that could be cool.

Edlund: Yes.

Kripke: and I think that was the, uh—

Edlund: I think that was a large part of the kernel. I mean–

Kripke: That was an acorn from which a mighty oak has grown.

Edlund: (laughs) And, um, it came out great.

I did not transcribe every instance in which they refer to this episode as taking place in “the future”, but they consistently refer to it as such, and never even a hint at it as a false reality or a Trickster-type creation of Zachariah. (With one exception, which we’ll get to next.) Everything in the commentary is placed concretely in the context of it being actual time travel into the future. Had that been their intention, they could easily have brought up Trickster/ Gabriel, or implied that this was Zach’s make-believe world. They don’t–it’s all time travel, future, and so on.

Next we have the details about some of the abandoned time travel concepts. This is the key portion of the commentary. I have bolded a statement from Kripke about abandoning that particular approach and a statement from Edlund about an “alternate universe” model. From 24:29 – 26:39:

Kripke: This might be useful for commentary, but—

Edlund: Sure.

Kripke: –we ended up pulling it at the last minute. There was this whack-a-doodle notion that Ben and I came up with that Future Dean had already gone through—

Edlund: Oh my God!

Kripke: Remember that?! Future Dean had already gone through the experience of Past Dean.

Edlund: Bob brought us back to sanity on this one.

Kripke: –where Future Dean was like, “I know why you’re here, because five years ago I went through the same experience–“

Kripke: “–and time is a loop, and here’s a scar on my chest that that little girl gave me and—“

Edlund: “–and I’ve been manipulating you so that you would do what the writers wanted you to do.”

Kripke: “And every line you’re about to say I already said it. And time is cyclical…”

Edlund: (groans)

Kripke: And we went through it, and we were congratulating ourselves for being so smart—

Edlund: (groans)

Kripke: –Future Dean was lying and manipulating him and we showed it to Bob—and this is, by the way, a perfect uh, model, or—

Edlund: We had crawled up our own asses, we had lit a campfire, and we were having s’mores.

Kripke: –a perfect picture of why Bob Singer is so invaluable toSupernatural. Which is, like, we show him the draft and he reads it and goes, like, “What the hell is this?!” And we’re like, “It’s cyclical! Time is cyclical!” And he’s just like, “What? What’s wrong with you? I don’t even understand what the hell any of this is! Just shut up!”

Edlund: And remember, we would come into his office and draw pictures of it—

Kripke: Yeah, yeah, we literally—

Edlund: “No, no, Bob, look! It’s a circle with a line through it and these two dashes!”

Kripke: We were drawing him a diagram of the nature of time travel in Bob’s office and he looks—he just gives us this wonderful dry look like “You’ll be drawing that for the audience?”

Edlund: Yeah, I know, right. (laughs)

Kripke: That look is called the Quiet Stop It. And then we like, “All right”, and we just knew. And it was very late, we were, like, already in prep.

Edlund: Yeah.

Kripke: We pulled that whole notion. And that was like a big through-line. That was probably like six or seven pages of the script, which when you’re that late in the game is a lot.

Edlund: Yes. But though–

Kripke: –to pull and rethink. And by the way, so mu—glad we did it.

Edlund: Much better, yeah. And it really just moved to an alternate universe model, much better. And also, there were like two pages of dialogue of Dean just going—

Kripke: Explaining it.

Edlund: “Let me again try and” –not explaining, reiterating with different metaphors to try and create a picture.

Kripke: “Time is a bus. I got off the bus. Then I got back on.”

Edlund: (laughs)

Kripke: So, yeah, that’s the process.

There are a couple of elements here that would seem to support the theory that this was not intended to be actual time travel. FIrst, they describe an approach to explaining time travel–Future Dean had already been through it all–and state that it was changed at the last minute. But note that pulling this particular approach does not mean they abandoned time travel. They abandoned the model in which Future Dean knows everything and is manipulating Past Dean. That does not mean they abandoned time travel as a whole.

But then Edlund says they moved to an “alternate universe model.” Well, that’s pretty damning, right? So much for time travel. Except…not really. First of all, it would still be ambiguous, not definitive fact, because we don’t know that “alternate universe” means “fake world created by Zach”, and we still have to weigh that against the rest of the commentary where it is referred to as the future. And if that statement was the whole of what we knew about Edlund’s position, I’d say the evidence was against time travel. If it was Kripke who referred to the alternate universe model, for example, I’d wouldn’t have much of an argument, because I don’t know of any place where he’d talked in more detail about this episode or its conceit and I’d have to take that comment at face value.

But it’s not Kripke–it’s Edlund. And for him, we don’t just have that short remark on the commentary about alternate universe models, but a detailed explanation of how time travel in “The End” brought Dean to a real possible future that at the same time was not a necessary future:

Another big picture aspect that comes into question with Edlund’s episode The End is whether angels can really travel into the future, or whether Zachariah was just messing with Dean’s head, Gabriel-style. “Yes, they can, but that’s a four-hour answer,” Edlund declares. “I don’t have the math to support it, either. But in my mind—and that’s all we’re dealing with right now—I think that the future is not predetermined, it’s non-constant, and the angels can travel to any number of possible futures. Predetermining something is a state of mind; it is not the law of the universe, so if you believe anything about the future, it will most likely become a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is true in human nature. If I think I’m going to lose the game, I’ll lose the game. If I think I’m going to win, there’s a good chance that I’ll win.

“Free will is like a viral experiment that God left on the desk and then he left, and the angels are like, ‘What the hell is this?’ It’s messing stuff up. Satan got too close to it and he’s got a free will issue. It’s a weird thing, so when Zach took Dean into the future, I believe they just went intoone possible future. The future will roughly happen this way if Dean self-prophesizes this future, because it’s hinged on his choice. Zach had no impact when he went into that future, which is a pretty important detail about the underlying physics of it—he can witness a potential future, but he can’t change it or live there. It’s not a home for the people from the past; it’s a projection of what might happen. You can take a human like Dean, put him there, have him experience all this crap, get a punch in the face and get rolled down a hill, and then get brought back to the present, but that future will never be because Dean has been changed by the trip. We’re just talking about possible futures.”

(“Inside the Mind of Ben Edlund”, Supernatural Magazine #19, Sept 2010, pp 56-57.) I’m not sure when that interview was conducted, but it quite probably was after the commentary was recorded. This gives a lot more detail about Edlund’s intent than the commentary. It is clear that by “alternate universe model” Edlund was not so much referring to Zach’s Fake World as the fact that this was one possible future–among many potential futures. It’s an alternate future, perhaps, in the sense that that Future!Dean had not had the experience of being brought into the future by Zach. It’s more of an alternate-timelines than constructed-reality situation. In any case, it’s very, very clear here that Edlund considered “The End” to be time travel to a potential future. He appears to reject the suggestion that it was a “Gabriel-like” trick, given that his answer here goes straight to how the time-travel worked.

So at least for Edlund, we have definite evidence that he regarded “The End” as time travel. Kripke does not make any comments on the commentary that actively support the constructed-reality explanation, and he generally refers to it as the “future.” I’d place his position as unknown or ambiguous. (Again, pulling the time-is-cyclical, future-Dean-went-through-this-already model of time travel does not mean they abandoned time travel as a concept; it just means they went to a different model of time travel.) I don’t know if there are other interviews where he has talked more about this episode. I also do not have the season 5 companion book, so I don’t know if there’s more detail there.

In sum, we have a brief remark on the commentary from Edlund about moving from a very complex time-travel idea to an “alternate universe model.” We also have a very detailed explanation from Edlund about how time travel and the “possible future” in the episode worked. This explanation places the “alternate universe model” statement in the context of a possible-future model, rejecting the constructed-reality model. More importantly, it also shows clearly and unambiguously that Edlund regarded “The End” as time travel to an actual future.

(And yes, I did know before listening to the commentary this time that Edlund referred to an alternate universe model, though for some reason I had remembered it as “alternate reality concept.” But I read that interview before I’d ever listened to the commentary, so I always understood his commentary remarks within that context. It never occurred to me before now that they were taken as absolute proof of the constructed reality model.)

Edited to add: As always, I want to point out that none of this means that time travel is the canon explanation. Authorial intent is not the same as canon. Both time travel and constructed reality theories are equally valid interpretations of this episode.

May 25

“A Real Tight Rope You’re Walking”: Satire, Meta, and Corbett in “Ghostfacers”

Originally published March 23 2014 on Tumblr.

There are probably few episodes of Supernatural that have as wildly divergent opinions on their treatment of queer characters and issues as “Ghostfacers.” On one side, this episode is often viewed as queer-positive, based on Corbett’s presentation as the hero of the story and taking certain lines as genuine and sincere (on behalf of the episode’s writer) pro-gay statements. On the other side, it’s also been criticized as a blatant display of deliberate homophobia in which a gay man’s sexuality is presented as a threat and subsequently ridiculed after his death renders him “safe.” I propose that neither of these assessments is accurate; that Corbett—the emphasis on his sexuality, his death, and the reaction thereto–is satirical criticism in keeping with the metafictional nature of the episode as a whole.



Part 1: The Trope in Play—Corbett is Your Dead Gay Hero

Corbett’s death is fairly plainly a use of a gay character trope that goes back over many decades of cinema and TV, referred to by TV Tropes as “bury your gays.” While its purpose and format has changed over the years, its basic structure is the same: The queer characters die. They do not survive. They do not ride off into the sunset. They do not have a happy ending. Historically, gay characters’ deaths were plainly and openly intended as a commentary on the “essential depravity” of homosexuality (or nonheterosexuality.) If you were gay, you could not be happy—you had to be punished. Homosexuality had to be presented as something that led inevitably to suffering, destruction, and death in order to preserve a heteronormative and heterosexist view of the world.

More recently, given the unacceptability of blatantly presenting homosexuality as inherently doom-worthy, this trope is often used in a less-obviously offensive way. The gay character marked for death can be sympathetic, even heroic. Their sexuality is often not even presented as the reason for their death. But in some ways, the trope used this way is even more insidious in its apparent sympathy to queer characters. Because even though they may die heroes, their death removes their sexuality as an issue for their straight co-protagonists. They become safe and nonthreatening in death—a way of preserving heteronormativity without the unacceptable offense of directly attacking homosexuality or queer people themselves. And, of course, either way the queer characters end up dead.

Corbett’s death clearly follows the latter format of the trope. Alan Corbett is one of the relatively few identifiably queer characters in Supernatural. He is introduced as a distinctly sympathetic character. His sexuality is also placed front and center from the beginning as his introductory moments focus on his crush on Ed and Harry—a main character for this episode—comments on it, mentioning that it “could spell trouble for the team.” Corbett is the only one of the three supporting characters to get such attention. Then Corbett is killed—notably, the only character to die. His death makes it safe for his sexuality to be addressed as there can no longer be a consequence; he then returns to die a second death as a hero, saving the rest of the characters and providing resolution to the main conflict. He is the sympathetic gay hero whose death very conveniently removes his sexuality as a source of discomfort or conflict.

The essential question, then, is whether the trope being ignorantly or maliciously played “as is” or used as a vehicle for satirical critique. That violence is done to Corbett, that his character and specifically his nature as a gay man is exploited and used for humor, is inescapable. But “there is a difference between using violence to attack a group of people and using that violence to make a legitimate point.” (The Celluloid Closet, p. 260) The simple use of the trope does not in itself condemn the episode; it is vital to place its use in context. That requires, first of all, an examination of the framework of the episode as a whole.



Part 2: A Fiction Within a Fiction—The Episode as Satirical Metacommentary

Corbett’s narrative cannot be viewed separately from the structure of the episode as a whole. The entire episode is a parody and satire, and has significant metanarrative elements. “Ghostfacers” is the first major departure from Supernatural’s typical episode structure. Most of the episode is presented from the point of view of the Ghostfacers group, who are painfully aware that they are presenting themselves on camera for an audience. Sam and Dean, our erstwhile heroes, are outsiders. The episode is primarily a parody of reality shows, with significant satirical elements. (The distinction being that most of it is simply played for humor, but there is some commentary on the nature of “reality” shows and their participants, which is where the satire lies.

The setup of the episode is the key to understanding that Corbett’s story is not as it seems. From the first moments, we are taken out of our usual SPN-verse. The title glitches, fractures, and “our” show is taken over by the supposed “reality” show Ghostfacers, complete with unique theme song and credits. From the first moments, our view is changed. This new perspective is reinforced throughout the episode. Harry refers to the (then just ended) WGA strike: “Those fat cat writers…”  At a later point, they also refer to Sam and Dean as “those [assholes] from Texas”, which dually takes us out ofGhostfacers as a show (Ed and Harry did indeed meet Sam and Dean in Texas in “Hell House”) but also reminds us that Supernatural is just as constructed a fiction as this “reality show.” (Jared and Jensen are, of course, both also from Texas.)

Not only are we removed from the usual Supernatural world, viewing Sam and Dean through the handheld cameras of the Ghostfacers team—reinforcing that we are in fact viewing them through a camera every week, that this is all a construct, a fiction—but we are reminded that what we are watching is a reality show—Ghostfacers—within another show –Supernatural—that we are watching. It is a construct within a construct, a fiction within a fiction, and every piece of it is invited to be examined, parodied, criticized. It is not until the very end of the episode that we snap back—mostly—to our usual SPN-verse point of view, as we return to the usual camera view and the “real” credits roll.

The way the episode is shot also contributes to the viewer-as-deconstructor of the episode’s content. The handheld style is both immediate and intimate and yet distancing as the show-within-the-show invites us to examine how the internal story is played out, and therefore how the characters int eh framing structure of the episode—that is, the Supernatural aspect—interact. Contributing to this, the episode itself also has heavy metafictional elements. Ed and Harry’s opening pitch presents their show as superior to scripted shows driven by “those fat-cat writers,” a direct reference to the 2007 WGA writers’ strike.  All of these aspects of “Ghostfacers” give a roadmap of how we should address Corbett’s story.

The characters address the audience in an exaggerated manner. Ed and Harry speak with parodically extreme sincerity and faux-deepness. Potential conflicts—Corbett’s crush, Maggie and Harry’s relationship—are exaggerated for the sake (within the “reality show”) of making the show more dramatic and interesting. “I can smell syndication,” Ed comments at one point, bringing home the point that even this “filmed reality” is a deliberately constructed story.


Part 3: The Exploitation of Alan J. Corbett

The satire and hyper-awareness of a show in production are present from the moment Corbett is introduced. His sexuality is also placed front and center from the beginning, emphasizing that it is going to be a plot point, an issue. His introductory moments focus on his crush on Ed, and this is given especially close attention as Harry even comments on it, mentioning that it “could spell trouble for the team.” In an episode that is entirely constructed as metacommentary and parody of common tropes and the nature of television, this blatant emphasis on Corbett as Gay Character is absolutely deliberate, setting up his character and story as satirical critique.

After Corbett’s death, the discussion between Ed, Harry, and Maggie takes the exaggerated “We’re Making a TV Show” form to an extreme.  Maggie and Harry in particular are at once absolutely sincere and well-intentioned, and playing up and trying to be deeply meaningful, making dramatic statements for the sake of their audience that takes the exchange into the territory of satire.

HARRY: I…I know how we can get through to him.

ED: How?

HARRY: Ed… He had feelings for you.

ED: Huh?

HARRY: He wanted you.

ED: Wa— wanted me to what?

HARRY: You know. And you know what you’ve got to do. You can do it, Ed. You’ve always been the brave one. Yes, you can. You make us brave — Maggie, right?

MAGGIE: Yeah. Yeah you do. You totally do.

HARRY: Ed…You got to go be gay for that poor, dead intern. You got to send him into the light.

While Ed is genuinely distressed and appears to have mostly forgotten about The Show since Corbett’s disappearance, Maggie and Harry remain obviously aware the camera’s presence; that all that is happening is still part of the show. They champion Ed to speak to Corbett, but continually glance at and address the camera. They blatantly play up the drama, still aware that this is their show. Emphasizing Corbett’s crush on Ed, playing it up, adds to the conflict. Now there is not only the potential danger of Ed stepping outside the salt circle, but the drama of hidden feelings, interpersonal relationships, potential (if one-sided) romance. While they had been told by Sam that one generally needed a personal connection to the deceased, Maggie and Harry could have easily chosen to tell Ed that Corbett looked up to him, or otherwise emphasized other aspects of their relationship. But unrequited love is, well, sexy, and attention-getting, and makes for a more involved show. Do they do it deliberately? Perhaps not, but we are shown throughout that all the team are intensely aware of the camera view and The Show—even finding the remove of the camera comforting, as in this exchange between Maggie and Dean: “Does looking at that nightmare through that camera make you feel better or something?” “Yeah…yeah, I guess it does, yeah.” In the end, though, intentionally or not, both Corbett and Ed are exploited in service of The Show.

Then we have Ed’s “oh man I know you mean well but no” eulogy for Corbett at the close of the “Ghostfacers” show:

ED: War changes man. And one woman… You know Corbett, we just… ah gosh, we just like to think that you’re out there, watching over us.

HARRY: As far as we’re concerned, you’re not an intern anymore. You have more than earned full Ghostfacer status. Plus, it would be cool to have a ghost on the team.

ED: Yeah. Heh heh. And here we were thinking that, you know, we were teaching you and all this time you were teaching us, about heart, about dedication, and about how gay love can pierce through the veil of death and save the day. Thank you, Alan J. Corbett.

They start with tired platitudes—hoping Corbett is watching over them, he’ll always be part of the team, we learned from you. All of this seems to be not quite enough—Ed is on camera, and he is acutely aware of that. This is his show, and he needs to sell it. The way to do that, in his mind, is to be profound—to make Corbett’s death not just a tragedy but something Deep and Meaningful that Changed Them All. This results in the infamous “You taught us that gay love can pierce through the veil of death and save the day.” He is intent on being sincere on trying to reassure the audience—and Corbett—that they had no problem with his sexuality. But by singling out Corbett’s sexuality with such a ridiculously extreme statement, setting “gay love” apart from any other type of love, it has the opposite effect. Not only Corbett’s death exploited, but his existence as a gay man–his sexuality–is no longer his own but is used by the Ghostfacers to promote their show.

This goes back to “Ghostfacers” as a satirical commentary on reality shows. Ed and Harry are the showmakers and Corbett their exploited gay character. (Adding to the offense, in their world Corbett is not a “character” but a real person.) That eulogy is their defense for using his death, pointing out especially that they had no problem with him being gay, and even setting him up as their Gay Hero. The extremity of their defense—it’s not only okay that he was gay, it was the most important special thing about him—is not only a parody of faux-profound reality shows, but of defense of use of the “bury your gays” trope. “Yes, we killed off our gay character, but see we don’t have a problem with the Gay, in fact, it makes him extra-special.” The scene is practically an eye-rolling “Do you realize how ridiculous you sound?” commentary on such a defense.

The final exchange with Dean and Sam is absolutely critical to understanding the narrative position on Corbett’s treatment. At this point, the point-of-view of the episode has switched back to our “normal” SPN view. The normal credits are (finally) showing (although out of order) and we now have the normal camera view. The Ghostfacers’ show is over, and we are back to the pretense that an audience does not exist, that we are simply watching events unfold. Significantly, this means Sam and Dean are once again our main point of view characters.

After watching the Ghostfacers’ show, Sam and Dean comment on it. Metatextually, they are also commenting on the episode of Supernatural we (and they) have just watched. For obvious reasons—he was, after all, the one who died—Sam and Dean focus on Corbett’s death:

 SAM: Yeah, um, I mean it’s bizarre how you all are able to honor Corbett’s memory while grossly exploiting the manner of his death. Well done.

DEAN secretly slips something into a backpack under the table.

DEAN: Yeah. It’s a real tight rope you guys are walking there.

The significance of this exchange cannot be overemphasized. Remember, again, that they are in essence criticizing not only the Ghostfacers but also the show we have just watched. They are now standing in for us, the viewers. They have just watched it as we were watching it (except, of course, they also lived it.) Sam’s faint praise is no praise at all—“it’s bizarre” gives away that he’s not really impressed; he’s willing to grant that they intended to honor Corbett, but all they have in fact done is exploit him and his death. His sarcastic “well done” completes the message. It’s a commentary on the “heroic sacrifice” justification of the bury your gays trope. “I realize you meant to make him a great hero and thought it would be good to claim that being gay is what made him special—but in fact by placing him into the position to be killed”—the Ghostfacers do not, of course, have quite the same power as a writer of fiction, but they are in the writers’ position here—“and emphasizing his sexuality you have done nothing but grossly exploit him and his identity. Well done, because by putting the emphasis on his gayness in his death, you continue the stigma of his sexuality. Well done, and by well done I mean not well done at all.”

Dean agrees with a “Yeah, real tight rope you guys are walking there.” He is pointing out that what they are doing with Corbett has a very, very thin line of acceptability. And, as with so much else in this episode, it’s also a statement on the episode’s treatment of the Corbett character, and of the trope itself. To use this trope–to use any trope of this kind, with its potential negative impact–is to walk a tight rope. It’s not something that can or should be done casually, or in ignorance of the historic and current dynamics of its use.

During this commentary Dean and Sam share a look and agree to destroy the Ghostfacers’ pilot. The timing here is significant. They make the decision, and Dean slips the bag with the magnet under his chair, as they criticize the Ghostfacers for their treatment of Corbett and his death. The ostensible reason for this of course has nothing to do with Corbett, but it’s hard to see the timing here as anything other than further critique. They decide to trash the show, to destroy it, to erase it from existence, at the same time they are calling out the Ghostfacers, and by extension the episode of Supernatural we have just watched for their exploitative treatment of Corbett.


A couple of final notes:

  1. Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet is a good resource for the history of gay sexuality and characters in film, including extensive discussion of the purpose and effect of the “bury your gays” trope (though obviously not by that name.) While it only dates to the 1980s—and thus does not really see the trope develop past “death as punishment for the evil gay”—Russo does essentially predict the inevitable evolution of the trope to include the Tragic Gay Hero.
  2. While I could find no statement on authorial intent as regards Corbett, the episode has been explicitly described by its writer as “meta” “metanarrative” and “playing with form and genre.” I believe that any interpretation of Corbett or his treatment by the narrative should keep this in mind, as I have done here.

May 25

You’ll Be Better, When You Aren’t Yourself: Implications of Castiel Falling

Originally published April 24 2013 on Tumblr.

There has been a great deal of speculation about Castiel falling at the end of this season. We know he will be a regular character next season, and the writers notoriously have difficulty in fitting a high-powered being intoSupernatural’s world. Therefore, for Castiel to fall – not only to be depowered, but to be disgraced and become fully human—is seen as the most obvious way around that difficulty. It is easily argued that such depowering is unnecessary and that there are ways to fit a powerful character in without making him a plot device or the deus ex machina all the time. However, we also know that Supernatural has been unable to do this, and therefore we have had many successions of Castiel depowered in various ways, interspersed with overpowered Castiel who sometimes saves the day and sometimes ruins it. So it appears that fallen!Cass may well be the direction that the show is headed. But what does this suggest about Castiel as a character, and is it a good thing?

Castiel is a character who doesn’t fit in, who according to what we’ve been told, has never fit in. His fellow angels talk easily to the Winchesters about how different he is. “Too much heart was always Castiel’s problem,” Samandriel tells Dean at their first meeting. Both Uriel and Balthazar refer with distaste to his liking of human beings, Dean specifically. They are very clear: Cass feels. An angel is not supposed to feel. He does not fit, and Samandriel’s comment suggests that he never fit, that he’s always been different. Castiel also behaves differently to all the other angels we’ve seen; in no other angel have we seen the social ineptness, the odd vocal inflections, the sometimes unusual bearing. A lot of this is explained in real-world terms in that Castiel was the show’s first angel, and his character was fairly well-established before new angels who acted more “human” were introduced. (In-world, we are given no specific explanation, except that Cass is just different.) Oddly enough, Castiel is both regarded by the other angels as the most different, the most human, of all of them, and yet to human beings (including the audience) he is probably the most unhuman of all the angels in terms of his mannerisms.

Since Castiel does not fit in with his angel brethren, it’s tempting to say that falling would be an improvement for his character. He would no longer be derided for being exactly what their Father wanted them to be. There is more tolerance for differences within humanity than within angelkind—which says something about how narrow the angels are—so perhaps Castiel would ultimately be better off as human. He would still be different, but he would be in a place where some of the essentials of his nature—namely his heart—did not mark him as a freak. But Castiel is not human. Even if he falls and becomes “essentially” human, he has eons upon eons of existence as an angel. It’s fair to say he won’t forget his past, though it’s possible that he will slowly lose all but his recent history, that it can’t all be contained within a human mind. Ultimately, Castiel is still going to be an outsider, someone who doesn’t quite fit, as a human. But he’ll be someone who doesn’t fit in and has lost everything that he was.

Castiel is a character who dwells in the in-between. He is—now, as an angel—close to both humanity and Heaven. He still feels loyalty to and arguably love for (not to mention a huge amount of guilt) his angel brethren, and we know he loves humanity—the Winchesters and Dean specifically. If he is human, he will no longer be the liminal character, not quite fitting in either world; but a being trapped on one side, at home nowhere. As it stands now, he has responsibilities both to Heaven and to humanity, and humanizing him would imply that he no longer holds any responsibility to Heaven. And human!Cass will lose his status as a go-between for Heaven and Earth. The show already lost one character that inhabited that in-between world when Meg was killed. The loss of liminal characters in this way unnecessarily separates the different realms of the show; if Cass is simply human there is no longer a sympathetic connection between the angel and the human.

We currently have three examples of fallen!Cass (in the sense of being depowered and essentially human) in “The End” and the end of Season five, and in “Mommy Dearest.” All three have additional complications—in both cases there’s a lot going wrong in his world that Cass can’t or doesn’t know how to deal with depowered—but in all three it’s clear that falling would not be good for Castiel. His loss in “Mommy Dearest” is clearly temporary, caused by proximity to Eve, and is fairly lightly treated. In the end of Season Five, his falling and loss of power and subsequent inability to help in ways he’s accustomed to frustrate him deeply. But it is “The End” that shows us the tragedy that a completely fallen and human Castiel could be.

There are, of course, complicating circumstances surrounding Castiel’s fallenness in “The End.” It’s the Apocalypse, Sam is essentially dead, Dean is lost, and Castiel has fallen because the angels have abandoned him. All of which potentially contribute to Castiel’s depression over his loss. But there’s an essential sorrow there that is not about anything other than being fallen and not being what he was anymore. There’s a sense to End!Cass of nothing matters because I’m no longer who I am. Maybe in a world where falling is a choice freely made, Dean and Sam are right there with him, and the world isn’t gone to hell, Castiel falling will have a less tragic end. But there will probably still be some degree of sorrow and loss. Fallen Cass will always be a tragedy, even in idealized circumstances.

There is also a suggestion that human!Cass is the only logical direction for his character to develop. This is possibly the worst possible reason to have Castiel fall—worse possibly than having him fall because he’s too powerful. Making Castiel human because it’s not possible for his character to grow otherwise has terrible implications. It states that only human characters can be fully developed. If Cass becomes human, the show will most likely (unless one is introduced now) have no regular, recurring nonhuman ally character. If Cass falls, he will be normalized. He will lose his essential differentness from the other main (human) characters. Pairing this normalization with the suggestion that Cass can now be allowed to grow and develop as a character now that he is human would be a deeply disturbing and distasteful development. It suggests that Castiel is only a good (as in well-developed, fully rounded) character if he is human, if he is normal—that a character who is atypical and different must change in order to be as valuable as other characters.

This equation of normal with good is part of why I don’t like the idea of Castiel falling. I don’t see Castiel as autistic, but there are aspects of him that are recognizable to me as an autistic person; enough so that I find attempts to normalize him, or suggestions that he would be “better” that way alarming. There’s a persistent point of view that sees Castiel’s difference—his occasional social ineptness in particular—as a flaw in his character. (Perhaps, according to some, an adorable flaw, but a flaw.) If he becomes human, therefore, he will no longer be an outsider and this flaw will most likely be fixed. Part of me thinks the show will—if human Cass happens—make as much as possible out of “Cass learning to be human” possibilities, but eventually human Cass will most likely be some shade of the Cass we see in “The End,” with essentially none of his previous social awkwardness. But in real people, these aren’t things that can be simply “fixed” and changed. I don’t think, at all, that this is deliberate; Cass isn’t written as an autistic character and ridding him of certain elements of his character that are reminiscent of autism wouldn’t be intended to be taken that way. But as someone who has been told frequently that it’s a shame that I’m autistic and I’d be a much better person if only I could be “fixed” so I could be “like everyone else”—an attitude that is not at all unusual—the parallels, however unintentional, are inescapable. And such experiences are hardly isolated to autistic people.

Making him human, and no longer different, would be a profound change in his character. End!Cass indicates that much of the way Cass interacts with the world is due to his angelic nature. Take away that nature, and he becomes an essentially different person. Human Castiel wouldn’t simply be “same Castiel minus powers,” he’d be a whole new character in many ways. One that’s been made typical, made normal, in order to fit in better with the show. On its own this is problematic enough, but it’s also part of a long history (outside ofSupernatural) of nonhuman or otherwise typical characters being presented as improving or becoming more real, well-rounded, or generally better when they behave or become more human or more typical. While I’m certain that isn’t a conscious intention—from the powers that be or from those who want to see Cass fall–it has definite negative implications for people like me who find that an essential part of Castiel’s appeal lies in his differentness, his non-humanity. Telling us Castiel would be better if he changed, if he was no longer what he was, feels like telling us that we, too, would be better if only we were “normal.”

Additionally, Castiel falling and becoming human would potentially allow him to avoid responsibility for what is happening in Heaven. It’s possible that even falling he could put himself in a position to atone for his role in Heaven’s destruction, but it’s highly unlikely. The first half of this season—8×07 through 8×10 in particular—gave us a Castiel who was finally beginning to understand that he needed to face what he’d done and do his best to atone for it. (He really can’t fix what he did, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have the responsibility to try to restore and make amends as much as possible.) After this point in the season, however, Castiel’s story shifted into the Naomi storyline. Much as I love that story, it did sideline Castiel’s working for atonement in Heaven. Even if we return to that as Castiel’s motivation by the end of the season—there has been some suggestion to that effect—having Castiel fall and become human would seem to cut that short. There’s also a possibility that if Cass falls without a resolution there that he will regard his falling—regardless of the immediate circumstances surrounding—as a punishment. I’m not interested in seeing Castiel punished. I think he was wrong to believe that remaining in Purgatory and being chased by Leviathan was a way to pay for his wrongdoing. I want him to work, by his own free will and not under control of any other angel, to try to make amends. If he falls, that story may well be left unresolved.

And I don’t believe Castiel does not want to be an angel anymore or that he regards himself as no longer part of that family. Yes, Heaven and the angels have serious problems, some of which were caused or exacerbated by Castiel. But they are still Castiel’s family. That he’s different from the rest of them does not change that, nor does the fact that the Winchesters are also his family. The Winchesters are Castiel’s family of choice; Heaven is his family of creation. Choosing between them is not a necessity, nor should it be presented as such. We’ve seen no evidence that Castiel wants to leave his angel family behind. His avoidance of Heaven earlier in this season was a result of his shame and guilt, not a lack of connection. And one need only look at his reaction to the angels’ arrival in 7×21 to know that Castiel still loves his angelic brothers and sisters.

In the end, Castiel may well fall. But a human Castiel is not a character shift that would be without problems. It would remove from the show a primary nonhuman protagonist and reinforce the idea that human (normal) is best. It suggests a character must be human in order to grow and develop as a character. Making Castiel human also implies that a character that is different is improved by making him more typical and more accessible. I don’t see how Cass falling at this point will be something he freely chooses. And when a character is forced to become something he isn’t, this shouldn’t be celebrated as an unreservedly good thing. Because it isn’t. It’s a tragedy. Good may come of it—I do think there could be some positive to Fallen!Cass –but it is still a tragedy.

May 25

“Fall From Grace With Me”: Free Will, the Golem, and the Angels

Originally published March 19 2013 on Tumblr.

Golem: Yifalkhunbi!
Aaron:Enough! Please! Quiet time!
Sam: All right. What was that? What was he saying?
Aaron: It’s Hebrew for something like “take charge,” but I have no idea what he means.

 The Hebrew “word”/ phrase that the Golem speaks to Aaron, Yifalkhunbi—most likely ‘פלחנב’ in the Hebrew— is an interesting one. It presents a subtle counterpoint to the presented “good” of Aaron’s ownership of the Golem.  Aaron loosely translates it as “take charge”, but this phrase does not translate to anything related to “taking control” or “taking charge.” In fact, the phrase seems to translate most directly as fall-grace-with (or for) me.

The phrase can be separated into three component words: yifal, khun, andbi.Yifal is (sort of; I think I’ve always seen it as yipol, so I’m not even sure this is an accurate form) the masculine future tense form of nfl, נפל, which means “to fall”—hence, “he will fall.“ I’ve never seen khen (חן), grace, pronounced as khun but that is the most likely candidate for the translation of that part of the phrase. Bi (ביhas multiple translations, but generally means “in me”, “with me”, or in some cases “for me” (in the sense of “for my sake”)—the latter being most likely here. Together, the phrase translates to English as “He will fall [from] grace with me” or “He will fall [from] grace for me.” The from is assumed here; technically from grace should be mi-chen (מחן). Even leaving aside the odd verb form of fall—if the Golem is addressing Aaron, it should be “You will/must fall”—this is certainly not a phrase that is naturally translated as take charge. There is clearly a deliberate secondary message here.

This made me consider how this phrase might have developed. I don’t know, but I presume when other languages (in this episode, German, Yiddish, and Hebrew) are used the writer writes the dialogue in English and it’s then translated into the appropriate language. This is probably generally pretty straightforward; the German dialogue at the beginning is (as far as I can tell) more or less translated directly by the subtitles; the same goes for the Yiddish. This phrase, however, is distinctly different. It is not in any way a phrase that a translator would naturally use to translate any form of take control of me into Hebrew. It’s not archaic; it’s not a known poetic form. This wording was absolutely deliberate, and not an oddity of translation. Whatever the path of this phrase, Edlund clearly wanted the true meaning of the phrase that the Golem utters to Aaron to demand that he create their bond to be fall from grace for/ with me.

It says something about Aaron and his relationship with the Golem. In the action of the episode, Aaron’s writing his name on the Golem’s scroll and thus taking charge of him is presented as a good thing. It represents Aaron’s maturity, his acceptance of his role as the sole member of the Judah Initiative, and his recognition of the value of his grandfather’s legacy. Yet if it is solely good, why does the imperative phrase refer to this taking control as falling from grace? It’s tempting to consider Aaron’s previous state of ignorance as a state of “grace”, and thus his acceptance of his responsibilities a loss of that grace, but the Hebrew word does not carry that connotation; it’s something closer to favor. So the phrase suggests that in taking charge, Aaron has fallen from favor. The question, therefore, is why? If this is good—and it’s presented as such—then why is it referred to in apparently negative terms?

The explanation may be in what Aaron has to do to take charge— accepting his ownership of the Golem. Throughout the episode, the Golem has been presented as a thinking, feeling being. He even has the ability to communicate—through speech—something that, as Sam points out, traditionally golems are not supposed to be able to do. There is a brief reference to the creation and destruction of a golem in the Talmud. A rabbi creates a golem and sends him to another rabbi, who questions the golem. When the golem cannot speak, the second rabbi commands it to destroy itself:

Rava said: If the righteous wished, they could create a world, for it is written, “Your iniquities have been a barrier between you and your God.” For Rava created a man and sent him to R. Zeira. The Rabbi spoke to him but he did not answer. Then he said: “You are [coming] from the pietists: Return to your dust.”

 Sanhedrin65b (translation from Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid, p. 27)

This excerpt, of course, has been interpreted many ways. One interpretation—and the one I’m going to use here—is that R. Zeira commands the golem to return to dust because it is not fully human, as it cannot communicate. It is an inferior, failed creation. The implication is that if it could speak, it would be considered human, and thought to be endowed with the soul-level that is associated with humanity. In Jewish tradition, there are three “parts” to the soul—the nefesh, which is the basic endowment of life common to every animal; theruach, which is the spirit which is capable of discerning good and evil; and theneshama, the “human” part, which is intellectual and capable of “higher” thought and connection to the Divine. The golem was generally considered to have only the first two soul-parts. This golem was destroyed, therefore, not because it was an imitation human, but because it was an incomplete copy—it was sort-of-human-but-not-really.

By these standards, the Golem in this episode is a fully ensouled being, the equal of any human. He is a person. Aaron is taking ownership of a person. The Golem himself even demands it, at one point saying, “It’s not my place to guide the rabbi, to teach the teacher. It’s not my place! You own me!” (This transcript gives the last sentence as Yifalkhunbi again, but it definitely sounds like you own me to me. I don’t have subtitles, so I can’t check for sure.) The Golem was created to see being owned as his purpose. He has strong ideas as to what that owner should be having him do, and of his responsibilities, yet there is an essential directive: I must be owned. Someone must be in charge of him, have command of him. The Golem is insistent that he does not have free will. His existence is predicated on service to his owner.

On the surface of this episode, this ownership is blatantly presented as good, but that phrase subverts that narrative with the suggestion that in claiming that ownership, someone is falling from favor, falling from grace. And if the phrase is translated as “fall from grace with me,” rather than “for me,” it also suggests that in accepting ownership, the Golem himself will also fall. There is a tension between what we are told and what we are shown in this episode. On one level it’s shown as good that this being is rejecting free will, and on another more subtle level we’re told that this is not good. Free will isn’t easy, and it isn’t really free—you can make your own choices, but you still have to pay for them. It’s simpler to act on command—it removes the messy what should I do from the equation. But this episode suggests that while it may be desired, and seem good in some ways, rejecting free will is not the right path—that it leads one to fall from God’s grace and favor.

The question of free will of course leads back to the angels, and Castiel in particular, who have had and are continuing to have their own struggles with free will. Just as with the Golem, the angels were created to be commanded—as far as they have been aware, they do not have free will. (In fact, in an interesting parallel, falling has been presented as a prerequisite for an angel to understand their free will.) Anna chose humanity and free will, and was consequently sentenced to death by her fellow angels. In season 6 Cass learns, painfully, that having free will is both a wonderful and terrible thing. Freedom to make your own choices means the freedom to make the wrong choices—and you are the only one responsible for your actions; there is no one else to blame. In general, the show has often shown that free will leads to bad things for angels. But we’re also asked to see these angels’ choices as a good thing. Anna believes that she is a better being for having fallen; we see Cass’s growing understanding of humanity and the value of free will as a good thing, as him learning to fight for what is good and right even if it goes against what he is commanded. In this season angelic free will is being explored again through Naomi. She has taken away Castiel’s free will in order to achieve her goals. While Naomi is something of a mystery, her actions do seem to represent the traditional angelic position—do what you are commanded—and this has terrible consequences for Castiel.

As with the Golem in this episode, there is an ongoing tension in the theme of angelic free will. And it’s not at all clear what God wants. If the angels were programmed, as “Torn and Frayed” suggested, solely to serve God, then they do not have free will. But Castiel tells the angels that “God wants you to have freedom,” in “The Man Who Would Be King” (another Edlund episode.) There are two possibilities here—either Cass is wrong, and angels are not meant to have free will, or he is right—and free will is what God wants. I think the show has fairly consistently stated that free will is a positive—Godstiel was not a statement that free will is bad, but that it is difficult, which is not the same thing—so I think it is fair to suppose that the show intends for us to think that Cass is right, and angels are free beings. They may not want to be free—hence Naomi—but that does not change the fact that they should be free. This leads us back to the phrase from this episode. If free will—for angels or anyone—is truly God’s will then it makes sense that rejecting it leads one to fall from grace—to fall from God’s favor.

Final note: I’ve tried to be careful with both the Hebrew and the Jewish texts here, but it’s been a few years since I’ve intensively studied either—and I’ve never studied that particular golem text—so there could be some mistakes. Also, credit to this post for pointing out that the khun part of the phrase was grace.

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.



“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.

May 25

Intentions, of sorts

This blog is intended as an archive of sorts for the meta I’ve written and posted to my Tumblr blog, as well as a place for writing that for various reasons I don’t want to post there. At the moment, I’m still mostly posting my old meta, so much of what’s here was written a couple of years ago.

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