Last week’s Supernatural saw Crowley rejoin Team Free Will to take on a common enemy — is there a plan to make our mellowed-out King of Hell into a permanent ally?

Supernatural’s most recent offering “Rock Never Dies” brought one of season 12’s first mini-arcs — the devilish possession of rockstar Vince Vincente — to a close, as Sam and Dean travel to Los Angeles to reunite with Castiel and Crowley, who’ve been odd-coupling around the country together using traditional hunter tactics to track down Lucifer. After pursuing a plethora of failed leads, proving just how corrupt a town LA really is, the awesome foursome face off against Lucifer at an exclusive club show and discover the motivation behind his recent actions.

To be frank, the Lucifer arc of “Rock Never Dies” did not feel like a particularly big deal to me. That’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable, well-written or well-acted — it was all of those things. It’s just that the big reveal — the fact that Lucifer has no nefarious plan, that he’s basically just acting out — was my assumption all along. I was 100% expecting that what was going on was a grief-stricken, hedonistic lack of agenda brought on by Chuck’s less than stellar parenting, so I was a little impatient watching the gang assume, all season, that there was something more sinister afoot when it’s actually just the work of a brat who wants Daddy’s attention. Of course, Luci’s aimlessness doesn’t make him any less dangerous — he’s an incredibly lethal brat, and he has nothing left to lose, so there’s no need for him to be careful — but I saw this coming since season 11, so his onstage meltdown that froze the guys in their tracks didn’t startle me. The confirmation of my theory was satisfying, I guess, but the story felt par for the course.

Much more fascinating was the contribution of Crowley to the group effort, and what this means for his place in Supernatural’s world in general. “Rock Never Dies,” written by Robert Berens, marked the first episode of season 12 to reconvene the show’s four most prominent characters onscreen together — all four appeared in “The Foundry,” also by Berens, but they were split into two pairs, with Castiel and Crowley continuing to hunt Lucifer together in a B plot off screen the past few weeks as we stuck close to Sam and Dean. This episode was all A plot, with Team Free Will and their weird wannabe sidekick all working a case together in the City of Angels, bringing their various strengths to the table.

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Crowley really feels like an ungrudging ally here. There’s a lot of reminders about just how much he hates Lucifer — he does have a personal vendetta due to his humiliating enslavement, so yes, it could just be your standard enemy of my enemy is my friend partnership, but there’s zero resentment on his side about working with the guys — in fact, he relishes being included. Of course, evil or not, he’s still a dick, so he probably delights in being irritating, but he takes every knock with a grin, and his attitude towards the others — patient, positive and snarky — never wavers. Poor Cas is exhausted by having listened to him talk for weeks on end, but it’s just grumpiness — no one questions Crowley’s motivations, and their lack of trust in him only extends as far as keeping an eye on him in case he’s a bit inappropriate — nothing nefarious. No one seems to feel the need to watch their backs around him anymore, and in retrospect, they haven’t for a while.

This episode’s MVP was actually Castiel — he’s the only one whose hunting techniques successfully pulled in any intel, and he’s the one who stepped up to throw himself into the line of fire. But the real clincher was the fact that Crowley offers himself up alongside Cas when the angel suggests sacrificing himself in a fight he can’t win in order to distract Luci for a few minutes while the brothers save the crowd. Any way you look at it, it’s impossible to diminish what this means — even Sam and Dean are visibly taken aback by Crowley’s help in saving innocents and don’t seem to know how to process the fact that the King of Hell really has joined their angel’s “always happy to bleed for the Winchesters” ranks.

Yes, I do believe that Crowley just hates Lucifer that much, but there’s no denying it — he’s also gone soft. He’s bored of Hell and the only thing that gets him out of bed in the morning on an average day is the chance to hang out with the Winchesters, and if that means doing good, then by Chuck he’s going to do some good. As he stands before Dean, face bloodied, he’s silently begging for pity and praise, and he actually gets some — Dean gives credit where credit’s due, and acknowledges the effort put in by Crowley and the life-risking beating he took for their cause. Crowley’s also included in Dean’s “go team” motivational speech at the end of the episode, and isn’t even the one to make cynical remarks about Lucifer getting away — that falls upon Sam, who to be fair has a more perturbing history with Luci than most. The previews for this week’s upcoming episode, the mid-season finale “LOTUS” in which we’ll see Lucifer invading the White House (too soon, guys) shows that the gang will be continuing to stick together in pursuit of their target.

There have, of course, been plenty of episodes that include all of these characters doing their various thing, but rather more infrequent are the occurrences, like “Rock Never Dies,” where all four characters share screen time as a group and work as a team towards a common goal. “Road Trip,” penned by showrunner Andrew Dabb, is easily one of the best episodes of the entire series thanks to its utilization of all four as an ensemble, leaning into the unique dynamic between each set of characters, and “The Executioner’s Song,” another Berens episode, features the other three supporting Dean in his face-off with Cain, which actually resulted in Crowley’s clear dismay at Dean’s double-cross, at learning that they’re not all in this together as much as he’d thought they were.

However, these were exceptions to the rule — even when Crowley isn’t directly working against them, the four operating as a unit is not exactly the standard structure of the show. Or is it? During the back half of season 11, after Crowley stopped messing around trying to get Amara onside, both he and Rowena were constantly included, by necessity, in the plan to save the world from the Darkness. In the lead-up to the end of the world, Crowley’s right there in the bunker with everyone else — God and all — sitting around drinking and trying to work out what the hell to do. He’s right there in the cemetery when Dean says his goodbyes and prepares to blow himself up. He puts in every effort to help, and when he can’t help he doesn’t hinder, and he basically hasn’t put a foot wrong since. He’s part of the furniture, and the idea of Sam or Dean killing him now, or of him doing anything new to warrant it, is both abhorrent and extremely hard to picture. Is this the new normal?

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Here’s the thing: Crowley isn’t going anywhere. Yes, Supernatural tends to eventually kill off every character that gets close to Sam and Dean, even those who’ve been a staple of the show for many seasons, like Bobby. This trend may or may not be changing (stay safe, Jody Mills!) but in line with the general rules of televisual storytelling, this is likely done to keep the stakes of the show from changing too much — to get the guys back to the status quo of only having one another. No matter how much they love one another other, the emotional consequence of a tragedy befalling either Winchester changes drastically if they have a wide safety net to support them. But over the years, it’s become clear that the show’s least expendable characters besides Sam and Dean are Castiel and Crowley. Perhaps it’s because they’re both inherently inhuman, but these two always survive, and, like it or or lump it, they’re sticking around.

This isn’t conjecture — their current value has been cemented by the Powers That Be. At San Diego Comic-Con this year, Dabb called them “core characters” alongside the Winchesters, and included them both in his description of Sam and Dean’s family, and Robert Singer, the show’s co-executive producer since day one, mentioned in passing that he considers the show to have four male leads — referring to Jared Padalecki as Sam, Jensen Ackles as Dean, Misha Collins as Cas and Mark Sheppard as Crowley — which is pretty telling in terms of how the production team views the story they’re creating.

It could never be claimed that anyone’s contribution to Supernatural would ever be on par with that of Padalecki and Ackles, and neither Collins or Sheppard are contracted to appear in every episode as true leads — this is still the Sam and Dean show — but they appear in the CW promo shots alongside the brothers, they’re staple presences not only at fan conventions, where all past cast members are beloved, but at the network-driven promo events like SDCC, and their characters have their own arcs that don’t always directly tie into their relationship with the Winchesters.

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For Castiel, this is understandable. Despite his past mistakes, he’s unequivocally a white hat. He’s the greatest friend the brothers have ever had, he’s an honorary Winchester, and he’s chosen them over his divine duty to Heaven. More than ever, Sam, Dean and Cas are a unit — he lives with them in the Bunker, and, unlike past seasons, they hold him accountable for leaving home and keep in contact when he’s not there. He’s undeniably the next-tier third lead of the show, and the only difficulty he presents as an ally is that he’s too powerful – his presence means too many easy fixes for Sam and Dean, lowering the stakes on run-of-the-mill cases, a factor it seems like the Supernatural writers are always trying to work around.

Crowley is messier. From his initial introduction in season 5, Crowley — then King of the Crossroads — was willing to sell out most of Hell in order to help Sam and Dean defeat Lucifer, and he’s pretty much always bet on them ever since. Whether working with them or against them, he is, consistently, to quote the man himself “the only game piece on the board who doesn’t underestimate those denim-wrapped nightmares.”

He’s also generally very honorable. Crowley’s word means something — to him, if not to anyone else. He stands by the terms of the agreements he makes, because if he doesn’t, he holds no power as a professional deal-maker — he’s even executed his own demons for killing humans outside the terms of their contracts. For someone with no moral compass, he very rarely lies, he holds little interest in trickery or in screwing people over for the sake of it, and his apparent ability to compartmentalize, to feel genuinely empathy and regret over the deaths of people he himself also tried to kill at some point reminds me a little of Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter: annoyingly believable beyond any measure of common sense.

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Named for the near-harmless demon Crowley of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens (famously described as “an angel who did not so much fall as saunter vaguely downwards”) his first episodes showed the similarity to his namesake — his willingness to align himself with forces of good to keep his earthly comforts just the way he likes them. When he becomes the ruler of Hell, instead of slicing and dicing, his idea of perfect torture being to make people endlessly wait in line, but things do turn darker, and it’s difficult to handwave his ruthless, violent history. He is, after all, a high-ranking demon, he lacks an innate conscious, and while Dean’s rending of garments over Castiel’s season 6 team-up with him now seems a little laughable in retrospect, he’s had periods of being a true enemy, particularly in relation to the demon tablet, his affect on the life of Kevin Tran, his murder of Meg, who, ironically, was the only demon besides Crowley himself to come close to gaining the trust trust of the Winchesters, and in causing Dean to lose Lisa and Ben.

However, just as Crowley hit peak evil status in season 8, using the Supernatural books to trace people the Winchesters had saved and kill them as punishment, he’s served a heavy dose of mortality. Sam’s near-cure of his demonhood as part of the trials to close the gates of Hell seems to have been somewhat of a turning point, giving us a glimpse of Crowley’s soul returning and allowing us to witness his horror at his own past, asking Sam how he could ever be forgiven. He willingly submits to the cure, but ultimately it isn’t completed.

His story lines since this point have mostly involved him clinging to those shreds of humanity, whether he likes it or not – the addiction to human blood and the intensity of emotion that it provides; the troubled relationship with his mother Rowena, who now holds record for the show’s most prominently featured female character episode-count-wise; and even the return of his son Gavin, who we’re promised will appear again in season 12. He spends half a season living as a prisoner in the bunker and begging for attention, he plays a crucial part in saving Sam from Gadreel, and he attempts to take back Hell in an election-like campaign, rather than a fight for dominance.

The most damage he’s caused in recent years was encouraging Dean to take on the Mark of Cain in order to defeat their common foe Abaddon, which, yes, caused immeasurable amounts of knock-on trouble for the next few seasons, but even the motivation behind that act was not quite one of an enemy. Crowley didn’t corrupt Dean with the Mark of Cain because he hated him and wanted to take him down, he was doing it with secret hopes to keep Dean for himself and get close to him, calling his demon resurrection a miracle. Forget the Dean and Cas debacle – the closest this show has come to actually confirming any queer romance between the leads lies in the pansexual Crowley’s shameless obsession with Dean and the implications made about their time together when Dean was a demon.

It’s now a running joke that everyone who knows Crowley — all of his underlings, his mother, Lucifer — they all find his infatuation with the Winchesters, particularly Dean, and his misery over their constant rejection of him, to be a pathetic weakness that makes him unfit to be King.

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As an avid consumer of film and television, I can generally tell when an antagonist reaches the point where an audience will never realistically believe a backpedaling to their past ways – for example, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the aftermath of “The Gift” signified that Spike would never truly be evil again, and that he’d ultimately end up a hero and regain his personhood in the eyes of the other heroes.

This corner is one that many bad guys have turned, even if they’re never fully redeemed and have to die a good guy in order to prove themselves, and even if a specific moment can’t be pinpointed, it’s a corner that Crowley turned quite a while ago. If there is one moment, it might be season 10’s “Inside Man,” — also penned by Dabb, so this is the Crowley of the current showrunner’s regime — in which he and Dean drink together, talk about what family means and how much they’ve both changed. There is no way that Supernatural could plausibly make Crowley the outright enemy of Sam and Dean ever again, and there’s only so much the heroes can give a pass to a regularly-appearing lead character who’s incidentally evil. From here, for Crowley, the only way is up.

It’s obvious to the audience that Crowley is not a threat, and that he cares about the Winchesters — maybe even about Cas too — much more than they care about him. Even his opening conversation with Dean — presumably his first since discovering Dean was still alive, after waving him off to his death in the season 11 finale — glibly references the fact that they’ve been ignoring him since saving the world together. “You don’t call, you don’t write…” “We don’t care,” he’s told. Later, he repeats those words – don’t care – back to his music executive buddy, when asked about his family. Was he referencing his mother, claiming not to care about her? Or was he referencing Sam and Dean, and bemoaning the fact that they don’t care about him? The former is totally logical, but the immediately recycled line makes me wonder if it’s the latter.

Unless something completely out of left field happens — and we can’t rule that out — the narrative dictates that for Crowley to stay relevant to the show, he’ll need to become a good guy by the series’ end, even if it’s increment by increment. How? No idea. The problem is, Hell still exists, demons are still out there doing evil — will the Winchesters consider him an ally, or even a friend, if he’s actively involved in Hell’s wheelings and dealings again? Would they cut him off, or prefer to know that he’s in charge, keeping a firmer hand on the rein than potential alternatives? Would they save his life if he needed saving — from the British Men of Letters, perhaps?

At a convention this weekend, Ackles and Padalecki were asked this very question — whether Sam and Dean would ever accept Crowley a good guy. The word “accept” here very poignant, because it signifies the fact that the audience, viewing the story, does recognize Crowley as a good guy, and that it’s on Sam and Dean to catch up to that fact. The stars, particularly Padalecki, were skeptical of their characters’ ability to adopt Crowley into the fold and didn’t give too else much away, but they note that Sam’s relationship with Crowley is very different to Dean’s, and Ackles did admit that he’d always be their man on the inside as far as the underworld goes.

I’m curious about how sustainable that relationship will be, and what level of trust it will include. To paraphrase J. K. Rowling, there are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and stopping God’s sister from causing the apocalypse is one of them. Once that’s been the status quo for a while, there will come a point where continued callousness from Sam and Dean will start to make Crowley look like a bullied underdog, as ridiculous as that sounds, but that’s storytelling for you. Supernatural choosing to ever pit Crowley against the guys again would feel unconvincing at best, and regressive at worst.

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In real life, no one would ever forgive someone who’s screwed you over as much as Crowley has screwed over Sam, Dean and their loved ones, but this is genre television — villains have come back from worse. In TV land, is Crowley’s past entirely unforgivable? Would he require a change to his very make-up in order to earn his right to personhood, or would a concentrated effort to not be awful be enough? As mentioned, he once willingly submitted to regaining his humanity once he started to feel it again — I can imagine that being a final endgame in which he proves himself once and for all, but in the meantime, he’s a more powerful ally as a demon, and all he can really do with that is make good choices.

You can re-watch “Rock Never Dies” now on The CW App.

The ‘Supernatural’ midseason finale airs Thursday at 9/8c on The CW

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