Disclaimer (in red so everyone would read): I am prefacing this article by stating that it is only my opinion and mine alone. I don’t claim to speak for all viewers, nor have I ever consider my ideas to be universal facts. I may use the word “fact” in my writing a lot, but that’s simply a shortcoming of my vocabulary.
I first intended to make this a distillation of all views I collected from fans across the board. I gave up on that idea due to the vast number of contradictory views and decided to stick to my own truth while letting others speak theirs in the comments. What will follow is an account of my experience with the characters of Supernatural in season 9. It will likely be different from yours, or anyone else’s. That doesn’t make it right or wrong. It just makes it the one I wrote.
Characters of Season 9
A few years ago, if someone asked me what Supernatural's best quality was I would have said its characters. They were all archetypes. Dean the self-loathing, nurturing messiah who was raised as a soldier but had to be the leader time and time again to keep his family safe. Sam the reluctant hero who rebelled for his freedom against life and all the bad things it subjected him to, and wasn’t beyond flirting with darkness if it meant getting what he wanted. And Castiel, the one with immeasurable power and a weakness for humanity, who left his family and duties in a quest to find God, and found home and heart with the Winchesters instead. I used to think this show had the best cast of characters a TV show could have.
Sadly, I no longer think that way. In recent years new people took over, whose vision didn’t match my archetypal vision of the dream team. They had other ideas on how to tell their story. Instead of putting characters first and moving the story through their arcs, they bound the characters to their plots and dragged them through scripts, changing their personalities and arcs as they went. This was practiced at full force in season 9 when even the most fundamental traits of some characters disappeared, or got replaced by something else in the space of one or two episodes, for plot related excuses such as receiving a mark or losing a plume of grace.
What bothered me the most this season was that shaping and reshaping of characters and their arcs based on the ongoing story. I see that as lazy writing. It’s easy to say Dean turned from gallant protector to angry dictator because he was hit by a curse. It’s harder to come up with an internal conflict that resulted in that change, something we could identify with and deeply care about, like what Edlund did with Castiel in season 6. (Some might say it was the brothers' rift, but is that really true? Is it enough? What concrete evidence do we have when we never got a Man Who Would be King type episode for Dean?)
This is what we take with us to season 10, characters with vague motives and personalities that come and go like fashion trends, so much so we can’t remember if they resolved one or buried it before moving on to the next. Is Dean still suffering from baseless self-loathing? Does Sam still want to live a free, independent life? Is Castiel still looking for redemption or Dean’s approval in the place of God’s? As of season 9’s finale I can’t say I know, because nothing is steady. They could bring back any or all these issues in season 10, or start the characters like new. When writers don’t feel obligated to stay true to character profiles and histories anything goes.
I mourned for Dean this season. He used to be my favorite character, the type of damaged hero who put on a brave, brash front to hide the pain inside, and who put everyone’s wellbeing ahead of his own, not because he was a philanthropist, but because he thought he didn't deserve better. My long time wish for him was that eventually Sam, or Castiel, or both, showed him how valuable he was to the family and the humanity he constantly saved.
The last vestiges of that dream disappeared in season 9, with the manipulation of the brotherly bond in the earlier parts, and the complete trashing of the Dean and Castiel relationship (which even Mr. Ackles confessed to) followed by the Mark of Cain insta-twist.
As you may know, I was never a fan of Dean’s extreme obsession with Sam in the later seasons, when his maxim changed from “everyone’s valuable except me,” to “everyone’s expendable except Sam.” Carver took that to new heights with Dean’s treatment of Benny, Gadreel, and Castiel. He changed Dean from selfless hero to single minded zealot. It went so far even Sam got turned off by it. I was willing to stay with the story in hopes that this was all part of Dean’s journey from a state of living only as a parent to Sam to realizing childhood was over and the need babysit his little brother was long gone.
But that wasn’t Carver’s plan; in fact it wasn’t even on the horizon of his plans. His only reason to put us through the labor pains of Sam railing on Dean, calling off the brotherly bond, and creating a rift as large as the Grand Canyon between them was apparently to fill Dean up to brim with bitterness. On top of that he broke off the Dean and Castiel relationship – the only other bond Dean had in his life – to use Castiel as yet another punching bag for post MoC Dean. He completely isolated Dean, pushed him to the brink of despair, then put a mark on him and called it character development.
I have seen many Dean fans happy with the Mark of Cain storyline. They cheered that he traded his Sam-nursing apron for a badass blade. I can't say I blame them, but for me that was not enough, maybe because I always valued character over story. I mourn the loss of the archetype Dean was, the traits that made him unique and captivating. His care for every living being, his wrongful self-belittlement begging to be refuted through love and understanding, and the righteousness that haloed him even among such holy entities as angels and priests. That was the majesty of Dean, and that is the loss I grieve. Because even if Dean-as-a-demon has the potential to have a great plot all to himself, it came at the cost of his most valuable relationships, and some of his most endearing, noble traits, turning him into something else long before his eyes turned black.
Sam started the season in familiar turf: being afflicted by something paranormal and dying from it. In my years with the show I have seen Sam more in this state – dying or not – than as a healthy, self-aware human being. I sometimes wonder if the writers are handed a sheet labelled “acceptable Sam storylines” and told to create a combo of sick, possessed, angry at Dean, slowly dying, or prophesied to save the world soup using that sheet. What isn’t however on that list, and I’m suspecting never will be, is getting the POV.
To me, Sam being close to death made little sense in the beginning of the season, since I recall he stopped the trials last season exactly to prevent that outcome. I’m guessing the writers needed an excuse to have Gadreel possess him so they ignored that little fact and went ahead with dying Sam. They also made a point to show us how ready Sam was to die even though he hadn’t been through anything worse than what he had experienced many times before.
Sam stopped the trials because he wanted to live with Dean. There was no justification behind him wanting to check out after that except it was needed to rationalize his later anger and want for separation from Dean. The rift that formed as a result caused Dean to slip farther and faster under the influence of the Mark. In other words Sam’s character arc was used to serve Dean’s ultimate plot.
Once the Mark of Cain ball started rolling everything stopped with Sam. He no longer argued with Dean, no longer demanded a new definition of their relationship, no longer ran to his room slamming the door. His character was reset to his pre-season 8 persona, the loving, caring, slightly worried brother whose most severe reactions were along the line of warning Dean about taking the First Blade to places. We never got any information about how he felt about the Mark, or Dean’s affliction with it. We never saw him research it, or have a serious talk about it. He didn’t pursue his revenge on Gadreel. He didn’t defend himself when Dean started using him as a dart board for his pumped up anger. Sam became a blank slate as soon as Dean got his storyline.
Jared’s acting labored most of Sam’s presence on the show post MoC, when writers gave him little to do. Some argue the Sam-light script was fair considering so many previous ones focused on his journey, suffering and transformation. I'd say not quite, because in those stories Dean still had the POV and the role of the concerned brother. It felt as if the writers didn’t want to give Sam the chance to show his inner self, or his softer side, or whatever was going through his head while his brother went through his plot based changes.
Despite all that I liked Sam better in the second half of the season than the first, when he showed the occasional concern for Dean. Sadly the change that simultaneously happened in Dean ruined the pleasure because they still didn’t become loving brothers and the rift stayed, compounded by Dean’s fondness for aggression and authority. It spoiled the emotional impact of the brotherly moments in the finale because, in my mind, they felt out of context.
I want Sam to have the POV next season. Just as Dean going through a change and becoming the main protagonist was long overdue, so is seeing the story through Sam’s eyes. I doubt it will happen though. The writers will most likely follow Dean’s journey as a demon through Dean's eyes and have Sam react to it. Still I think Dean’s storyline would be served much better if they removed the view point from him for a change and made Sam more sympathetic and more active toward his plight.
Despite my grief over Dean, the character portrayal that hurt me the most this season was Castiel’s. What I saw of him on screen either bored me, saddened me, or made me want to smash my TV. It got to a point where I, for the first time, wished him off the show and into his own if possible, somewhere he would be treated with care and respect.
In the earlier seasons, two things always bothered me about Castiel. One was that no one seemed to care about his injuries or woes. He could suffer terrible wounds, get beaten to within an inch of his life, or have tablets dug out of his stomach yet Sam and Dean wouldn’t even ask how he was feeling. Where Dean razed heaven and earth if Sam got so much as a cut on his finger, he was completely oblivious to any damage – physical or emotional – Castiel suffered.
After discussing this with some fans I received a semi-satisfactory explanation. Castiel was a being with immense power who had less need for comfort than his human companions. He could heal in the blink of an eye and not suffer too much psychological damage since his Empire State building wavelength of celestial intent wasn’t as fragile as a human's mind. Being an angel gave him an edge over other characters and in turn made their concern for him seem like a bunch of kittens worrying about a mountain lion.
A similar rationalization was offered for my second concern: the fact that Castiel was barely on the show even when Misha was a regular. The explanation again was that his powers would act as a problem solving Swiss Army knife for the brothers and resolve all their challenges, creating endless plotholes if he was with them 24/7.
When Castiel became human in season 9 those arguments became void. There was no explanation why Dean shouldn’t care about him being on the street, without money or shelter, and hunted by angels. He was no longer powerful or self-sufficient. He no longer could play deus ex machina in the Winchester storyline either (that role was handed to Gadreel,) therefore I saw no reason for him getting constantly separated from them in such questionable ways as Gadreel demanding it.
This became the root of Castiel’s problem on the show and why so many felt frustrated with his story. His story didn’t add anything to the Winchester story. It was a tale of its own. Yet because it didn't receive equal time and attention as the other tale, it felt like a time waster instead of a part of the narrative.
What this set up did to Castiel, aside from keeping him away from the screen for most of the season, was to treat him like a tool, both by the writers and other characters. Since he wasn’t there with them at all times they had to have a reason to call him for him to show up. And since the writers refused to make that reason Sam and/or Dean’s concern for Castiel it always came down to what he could do for them, which extended to what he could do for the writers to advance their current script, effectively turning him into a servant of the plot.
I said I wished Castiel could be off the show and on his own show because I don’t see any character development or real story arc for him the way things are. He would be forever a tool, used by Sam and Dean whenever they need him, and discarded after they are done, regardless of his state of being. His challenges – be it him becoming human, losing his grace, or struggling in life threatening situations in his divorced storyline – would be of no concern to them and hence of no concern to the audience. If he had his own show and functioned as a fully realized protagonist of the main storyline then the other characters would value his presence beyond just a weird dude with an army of angels. The writers would care about him, might allow him to win for once, or have him make an honest friend. Real people (not a horde of zombie angels) might look up to him and talk about him like a valued player whose health and feelings mattered beyond what he did for the plot.
Crowley got the same deal as Castiel, except he got to stay in the bunker. Most of the time he was stashed away until the Winchesters/the script needed him. He got a more active role toward the end of the season but the constant plot servitude he suffered made him as unbalanced as his angel counterpart.
That seemed to be Crowley’s deal from the beginning. He would play the reluctant ally/ sly businessman one season, then the bloodthirsty tyrant the next. This season he got an extra storyline in his human blood addiction that was supposed to smooth him out. Unfortunately, like most storylines this year, that idea was put on the back burner indefinitely so I couldn’t tell where in his humanity attaining arc he was at any point. Some take his concern for his son as a sign of getting closer to becoming human, but we saw him release Dean from the panic room and lead him to his death and subsequent transformation into a demon, as if that was his plan all along. Where was his half baked humanity midst all that? Will it come back next season? What difference did it make this season?
Gadreel’s story was similar to Sam’s in that he played a role in the first half of the season, then flipped to another one with barely a transition in the second half. We saw some doubt and hesitation in the middle, but it wasn’t vivid enough to justify the devoted ally he became at the end of the mytharc compared to the controlling, spiteful being he was when he possessed Sam.
The biggest problem with Gadreel is that he killed Kevin. Killing a major friend of the protagonists in cold blood is an unforgivable crime, especially since Gadreel didn’t have a personal excuse for it beyond Metatron telling him to do it. I couldn’t see any trauma or pain, need for revenge, grudge, or other psychological or emotional hang ups that would drive him to kill Kevin, hence I couldn’t sympathize with him on any level. Disregarding the fact that he was a useful comrade in defeating Metatron I saw no fault in Dean trying to gut him when he showed up in the bunker. I’m not even sure we were supposed to feel sorry for him or think justice was served, because so little time was spent on his development.
I already talked enough about Metatron in my weekly reviews, how he was annoying, witless, humorless, and an overall awful villain. Since then I read another fan’s analysis about how he was a chess player type villain instead of an aggressive one and that made me think. Though there’s some truth in that assessment, Metatron's flaw is that the writers tried too much with him. They might have planned to make him a Moriarty type villain, but they also made him pathetic. A cursory observation of scheming villains shows that most of them are calm, collected and confident characters. One has to be that way in order to play a game. Metatron’s desperation to be worshiped and loved ran counter against his calculating antagonist persona.
This doesn’t mean there are no pathetic conniving characters in stories. They do exist, but they are usually secondary villains or side characters who throw road blocks in the protagonist’s path, instead of being the final boss of their game. An example is Lord Varys from the Game of Thrones series. He isn’t even pathetic like Metatron, just small fry. A pitiful, unconfident weasel doesn’t provide enough danger and malice to play major bad guy for two seasons.
“Abaddon was wasted,” is the most common criticism of the character. What that criticism misses though is that she wasn’t developed enough to be wasted. I’d go as far as to say she wasn’t even a character.
Abaddon’s vessel Josie was an interesting woman. In the few glimpses we had of her we got the intimations of a fully developed character. She was faithful to her cause, devoted to the Men of Letters, and had feelings for Henry Winchester to the point of sacrificing herself for him.
Abaddon the Knight of Hell unfortunately had little of that. She only showed one trait and that was being crazy evil. We never got a back story for why she was so crazy or evil and had to rely on the idea that Knights of Hell were generally like that. That reduced Abaddon from a character to a concept. She wasn’t a threat because of who she was, she was one rather because of what she was.
Had they given us more information about her inner thoughts and feelings, or provided a semblance of an arc for her, this may not have been the case. As it was, we didn’t get to see much evidence of her evil nature either. We had to rely on the testimony of a red-shirt demon nun whose truthfulness was in question. We watched Abaddon kill Henry and the Men of Letters last season. But as far as season 9 went there was little action or personality development to expand Abaddon beyond anything more than a being like the Eye Of Sauron from Lord of the Rings.
I didn’t pay Cain much attention when I reviewed the only episode he appeared in. I complained about too much exposition, but for the most part I considered him a one-off character. Now that I know the Mark of Cain was made the main story arc of the season I wished there was more of him on screen. The writers truly needed to develop and present him better since Dean, the main player of the final arc, was supposed to parallel his storyline. The full effect of such a parallel gets lost when most of the first narrative – the one the present one is supposed to emulate – is told in dialogue in the span of just one episode. Had the writers thought this through (i.e. had they planned the MoC storyline from the beginning and not as something they threw at the audience to see if it would stick) they could have showed Cain much earlier iand let his story sink in and resonate with us for better impact at the end.
I plan on writing a second article about the many plots of season 9. I am sure more discussion on characters will come up in that one. This analysis is hence far from over. Again I want to stress that these are only my ideas and not the fandom’s collective opinion. I am aware that most of what I say here carries a negative pitch but this is the Gripe Review. By nature it leans more toward the negative than the positive, along with the fact that I sincerely found little good in my favorite characters this season. As far as character portrayals went this was the lowest point for me in the entire history of the show.
You are more than welcome to agree or disagree, and I encourage you to voice your opinion in the comment section. I look forward to your arguments and hope some of them change my outlook of the show so I don't run the risk of quitting it next season.