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Goodbye Stranger is a typical Robbie Thompson episode, i.e. it is well-structured, has great pacing and impresses with snappy dialogue and meaningful character moments. And given that it revolves entirely around angels and demons, which usually bores me out of my mind, it is surprisingly entertaining. So, on the whole, it is a good, solid episode. However, some of the parallels in Goodbye Stranger bothered me to such a degree, that it profoundly impacted my appreciation of the episode. As a result, I am a little more biased than usual in this review. Sorry for that!

Dean: "Sammy, I need you to be honest with me from here on out, man."
Sam: "You’re right. And I will be."
Dean: "Listen, I may not be able to carry the burden that comes along with these trials, but I can carry you."
Sam: "You realise you kinda just quoted Lord of the Rings."

Sam and Dean’s story in Goodbye Stranger continues their story from Remember The Titans, i.e. it addresses the brothers’ way of dealing with Sam’s failing health. Now, even though Sam made some efforts last week to open up to Dean about his doubts and fears, he is clearly not ready to talk about his illness yet, but he only does a half-hearted job of hiding it from his brother – openly disposing of a bloody tissue is just awfully sloppy on Sam’s part – and that suggests to me that, on some level, he wants to be found out. Dean at first indulges his little brother’s need for secrecy, which further reinforces my impression that, for once, Dean understands where Sam is coming from, but he is visibly worried, and the uncertainty about the extent of Sam’s condition sends Dean’s protective instincts into overdrive. I think that is the reason why the simple fact that Sam struggles to subdue a demon during a fight unsettles Dean to such a degree that he insists on leaving Sam behind with Meg, when they are about to walk into a potentially dangerous situation at Lucifer’s crypt. I mean, let’s face it. It is not the first time that a demon got the upper hand on either of the brothers, so Dean’s reaction to the incident is clearly disproportionate. However, it is maybe even more surprising that Sam complies with Dean’s request, under protest, but still. He usually hates to be treated as anything less than an equal partner to Dean, so his compliance could be read as an indirect concession of his weakness. I am really curious to see if and how Sam’s physical limitations will impact the brothers’ teamwork in the next couple of weeks. Here, they had backup in form of Meg and Castiel, but what will happen when Sam and Dean work a case on their own?

Anyway, the final conversation between the brothers, where Dean finally runs out of patience and asks Sam to just be honest with him, is by far my favourite scene of the episode. I love particularly that there is no drama, no anger or resentment, just a mature conversation between two adults who come to an easy understanding. Dean simply expresses how tired he is of being lied to by the people close to him and Sam apologises and comes clean without hesitation. It is all rather heart-warming. ♥ I find it particularly interesting that Sam admits that he not only lied to protect Dean from the truth, but also himself. As long as Dean was not in the know, Sam could pretend that he is okay, that he can work around his illness, like he did with his hallucinations in S7. Back then, he was able to find coping mechanisms that allowed him to stay on top of his game for a long time, but this time he is unable to just will his body into cooperation, and that is scary for someone like Sam, who needs to be in control of himself at all times. It is sadly ironic that, ultimately, the very choice that was supposed to give Sam some measure of control about his and Dean’s future resulted in an utter loss thereof. However, that is where Dean’s reassurance that even though he cannot carry the burden of the trials, he can carry Sam, comes into play. Because, in the end, it turns out that closing the gates of hell is a two-man job after all, and I love the prospect of Sam and Dean once again achieving together what a single soul could not. ♥ Overall, I am happy that we will see the brothers work through this on their own and that the writers refrained from using Castiel as an easy fix to the situation, like they did in The Born-Again Identity.

Dean: "Cas, I know that you’re in there. I know you can hear me. Cas, it’s me. We’re family. We need you. I need you."

It does not happen often that a scene triggers such a visceral response in me that it makes me physically ill, but the confrontation between Dean and Castiel in Lucifer’s crypt is one of those scenes. Usually, if something upsets me in the show, I let a couple of days go by to calm down and then look at the offending material with an analytical mind, but here we are, days later, and I am still angry, so rational analysis is obviously not going to happen this time. I apologise in advance that this section is more or less a rant and has little to do with Castiel’s actual story in the episode. Now, it is no secret that I am not a huge fan of Castiel. At best I find him amusing, at worst he irritates me, but most of the time I am just indifferent to the character. Still, I always make an effort to do him some justice and try to ignore the things that bother me about the writers’ treatment of Castiel. I mean, I turn a blind eye to the annoying Dean/Castiel fanservice. I put up with the fact that Castiel’s presence in an episode cuts down on Sam’s screentime and limits meaningful interaction between the brothers. I take it calmly that the Sam-Castiel relationship remains unexplored, even though their interaction makes much more sense to me than the hyped-up relationship between Dean and Castiel, which I feel is more about telling than showing anyway. I (barely) tolerate the writers’ tendency to just handwave Castiel’s wrongdoings because they cannot be bothered to actually follow through on his storylines. I even accept that, instead of writing original storylines for Castiel, the writers just take Sam’s storylines, tweak them and then apply them to Castiel, as if that will automatically make his journey as compelling.

However, I have to draw the line at something – and Dean and Castiel’s 're-enactment' of the crucial moment between Sam and Dean in Swan Song is most certainly that line. See, I do not have a problem with the fact that Castiel breaks Naomi’s hold over him; there have been other instances in the show where someone overcame a possession/mind-control because Dean’s life was on the line – like John in Devil’s Trap or Bobby in Sympathy For The Devil – so it is not an uncommon occurrence. But the setup, direction and sentiment of the scene between Castiel and Dean are clearly designed to mirror Swan Song in particular, and that intentional parallel infuriates me. The writers could have chosen any number of ways to construct the characters’ confrontation here, to make it something uniquely fitting to Dean and Castiel’s relationship, but instead they decided to use one of the most meaningful Sam and Dean scenes in the show as a template, as if the characters in said scene are simply interchangeable, and I find that extremely offensive. The cemetery scene between Sam and Dean in Swan Song is one of my favourite brotherly moments in the entire show; it is one of their most important moments, too. It is the culmination of a carefully constructed five-year long arc, a hard-earned payoff to their lifelong mutual journey, and I resent the fact that the writers think the relatively poorly written/developed relationship between Dean and Castiel can even begin to compare to Sam and Dean’s bond as depicted in Swan Song. The relationship between Castiel and Dean just does not have the same weight and depth, not by a long shot.

Of course, it does not help that the crypt scene is exactly the kind of scene that tells us what Dean and Castiel’s relationship is supposed to be, something I feel the writers never actually show us onscreen. Dean desperately pleading with Castiel and telling the angel that he needs him simply does not ring true for me. I mean, Castiel often vanishes for weeks at a time, and whenever he is off doing his own thing, Dean rarely ever mentions him, let alone express a desire for the angel’s company just for the sake of companionship. Dean only ever seems to think of Castiel when he wants the angel to do something for him, like heal/protect someone, make time-travel available to him, provide him with information or give him a tactical advantage. Moreover, when Castiel 'died' in Hello, Cruel World, there was hardly any reaction from Dean at all, especially compared to his response to Sam’s death or even John and Bobby’s death. All this undercuts moments where Dean expresses his kinship with Castiel, because without tangible evidence to back Dean’s assurance of friendship up, it remains nothing but empty words. It really comes off as an attempt on the writers’ part to force a certain reading of their relationship, even though they do little to support it. All in all, between this particular scene in Goodbye Stranger and the lack of an active reconciliation process between the characters at the beginning of the season, the writers squandered the last goodwill on my part where Dean and Castiel’s relationship is concerned.

Having said all that, I do like the general direction of Castiel’s story in this episode. I like especially the way it contrasts his story at the end of S4. I mean, back then, Zachariah was also displeased with the angel’s fondness for his human charge and his habit to defy angelic orders to the benefit of the human. And, just like Naomi, Zachariah made an effort to re-indoctrinate Castiel – and it was a resounding success. Castiel distanced himself from Dean and betrayed the brothers on behalf of his superiors by letting Sam out of the panic room, thus facilitating the apocalypse. But this time heaven’s intervention does not work. Even though Naomi’s re-indoctrination method seems to yield the desired result, i.e. to harden Castiel against Dean’s influence by forcing him to kill Dean over and over again – by the way, that shot of dozens of dead Deans was truly disturbing – Castiel ultimately not only resists her orders, but also deliberately turns away from heaven. And given how hard he struggled with his repudiation from heaven in S5, his decision here shows courage. Moreover, he turns away from Dean as well, and I really like that. I mean, these past couple of years Castiel frequently tried to rely on Dean as his default guideline on how to act outside of his angelic directives, and usually with very poor results. By becoming the guardian of the angel tablet and going his own way, however, Castiel finally grows independent from Dean’s judgement, and that can only benefit his character development. So, whatever his reasons for keeping the tablet out of Dean’s reach – I assume he either takes it to prevent Dean from closing the gates of heaven or to protect the brothers from Naomi’s wrath/attempt to recover the tablet – I like that it gives him a purpose that is uniquely his own.

What else is noteworthy:

(1) Goodbye Stranger is Meg’s swan song, and even though I was never overly fond of her, I am sad about the fact that the last recurring character from S1 is gone now, especially since this is the first episode since Born Under A Bad Sign where I truly enjoyed Meg’s story. Now, Meg has never been a particularly sympathetic character, but for all the grief she has caused Sam and Dean, she has always been consistent. All her actions – from her role as a soldier in Azazel’s army, to her support of Lucifer, to her antagonism with Crowley – have been driven by a deep hatred for hell, and I like that she acknowledges the irony of the fact that it put her on the side of good more than once, thus blurring the lines between good and evil for her. And the fact that, ultimately, she sacrifices her own life to secure Sam, Dean and Castiel’s escape, resonates with her realisation that there are no moral absolutes in her world anymore. I also quite like Meg’s conversation with Sam, particularly her somewhat mocking comments on Sam and Amelia’s 'romance'. In that context, I have to admit that, even though I am happy that Meg finally mentions her possession of Sam from Born Under A Bad Sign, I am not quite sure I like the possible implications of the resulting exchange between her and Sam. I mean, I have no doubt that Meg is truthful when she reminds Sam that she felt his longing for a normal life, and it makes perfect sense, too, because at the time Sam felt the full burden of his destiny and wanted nothing more than to be free of it. But I do not think the same applies to present-day Sam. Personally, I feel that Sam found fulfilment in his heritage as a Man of Letters, and quite frankly, I do not appreciate the writers’ attempts to undermine that deeply satisfying development in Sam’s arc.

(2) I admit, I am rather puzzled by Naomi and Crowley’s short conversation. So, they know each other from Mesopotamia? How is that possible, if Crowley’s human persona Fergus MacLeod died in the 17th century, as we have learned in Weekend At Bobby’s? I mean, as far as I am aware, Mesopotamia traditionally refers to the land between Euphrates and Tigris around 6000 to 600 before Christ, so Crowley could hardly have roamed the earth back then. This odd conversation, in addition to Crowley’s smug statement in What’s Up, Tiger Mommy that Linda Tran never told Kevin the truth about his father – I always suspected he might refer to himself, and considering that Kevin is a prophet, it would suggest angelic involvement – really gives me the impression that the writers are going to pull the same stupid stunt with Crowley they already pulled with the Trickster, namely retconning him into an angel, a fallen one in this case, one that apparently fathered children. So, Crowley’s persona in the 17th century would simply have been a poor possessed soul, passing as a human. I would really hate for the writers to go down this route, not least because it would result in consistency issues, again. They have introduced way too many retcons over the years already. If they want the story to go in a certain direction, they should just introduce new characters, instead of retconning well-established ones into oblivion.

In conclusion: Goodbye Stranger is a well-written episode that not only moves Sam and Dean’s story forward in a hopeful manner, but also presents a crucial turn in Castiel’s arc this season. Unfortunately, my emotions got the better of me, though, thus limiting my enjoyment of the episode, and I regret that, because I really appreciate Robbie Thompson’s work on Supernatural. Again, I apologise for the somewhat rant-y quality of this review. I promise, next week I will be back on track.
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