12:30 am EDT, September 20, 2018

‘A Third Wheel Adds Stability’: Celebrating 10 years of Team Free Will on ‘Supernatural’

Ten years ago, in a barn near Pontiac, Illinois, Dean Winchester came face to face with the angel Castiel, and everything about Supernatural was forever changed.

September 18 marked 10 years since Supernatural’s season 4 premiere “Lazarus Rising,” which of course is remembered as one of the series’ most important moments of all time. The introduction of Castiel, and all he represented — the existence of not just a Hell but a Heaven, and a divine destiny regarding the future of the universe that placed the Winchesters firmly at the center of all creation — was the biggest twist imaginable.

On a mythology level, this reveal was a turning point that opened up the scope of Supernatural’s storytelling forever, which in turn contributed massively to its endurance. Ten years later, here we are. Supernatural is about to enter its 14th season, cementing itself as the longest-running prime time genre show in the history of network television. And as great as Supernatural’s initial concept was — The X Files meets Route 66, two brothers driving around hunting monsters — the idea that a procedural about urban legends would have found a way to sustain itself for this long without massive growth is laughable.

But it isn’t just the world building that benefited from what the angel of Thursday brought to the table. On a personal level, Castiel’s journey has seen him become Sam and Dean’s guardian, their closest ally, and eventually their chosen family, and actor Misha Collins has risen from what was once a three episode guest stint to become the show’s third lead with his own individual arcs, which has benefitted Supernatural’s longevity in yet another way, allowing the Winchester brothers, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, who appear in every single one of the show’s near-300 episodes, to fight burnout by balancing the workload and sharing the spotlight.

Team Free Will, as the trio is nicknamed, is now the core principle of Supernatural’s methodology: the CW has even progressed, this year, to making all three actors faces’ the same size on their promotional posters, a welcome — and telling — development.

And for the brothers, it all started here, 10 years ago this very night. “Lazarus Rising” aired on September 18, yes, and the date is translated in real time to the Supernatural timeline — when Dean gets himself out of his grave, he discovers that date on a newspaper. However, the episode takes place over three days, as Dean orients himself and finds his way back to Bobby and Sam. As he pieces together what happens to him, he discovers that a being known as Castiel is attempting to make contact with him — blowing out windows and televisions to do so — but it’s not until the early hours of September 20 (the clock reads 12:30am when Dean is awoken by Cas’ cosmic shrieking and he decides to try summoning him — if you care to note the time stamp of this article, yes, that happened, no, I’m not sorry) that Dean and Castiel, now in a vessel, finally meet, and that Dean learns the truth: that angels are real, Heaven is real, God is real, and that they have work for him.

Over the past 10 years, Castiel has rebelled from Heaven for the sake of the Winchesters, he’s died and come back multiple times, and he’s gone from the boys’ protector to their sidekick to their equal. Sam and Dean’s relationship with him has opened the door to massive growth and change — again, two brothers raised in complete isolation and refusing to open their hearts to anyone besides each other is a fascinating starting point for a story, but it’s not a model that can be successfully sustained for 14 years without turning the heroes into total sociopaths. Castiel was their gateway drug to a found family. The seemingly simple act of providing them with a friend, someone else to share the load, completely changed the shape of their lives. “Good things do happen,” Castiel assures Dean when they first meet, and while neither of them knew it at the time, Cas himself would turn out to be the best of all.

Here’s one special episode from each of Supernatural’s 13 seasons that helps to show how Sam, Dean and Castiel got to where they are today.

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Season 4

‘It’s the Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester’

‘We have no choice.’ ‘Of course you have a choice.’

Obviously, Dean meets Castiel straight out of the gate in season 4, as Castiel rescues him from Hell and tasks him with divine duties, but this episode is where we see Castiel’s character, and his dynamic with both Winchesters, really begin to take shape. Midway through a Halloween-themed case, Castiel, with current subordinate/future traitor Uriel in tow, appears to the brothers, issuing a warning that the chain of events occurring in the town — the raising of Samhain — is one of the 66 Seals that will unlock Lucifer’s cage, and that the angels will destroy the whole town in order to prevent the seal-breakage coming to pass.

Dean refuses to allow this: knowing that he’s valuable to Heaven, he ridicules their claims that they have no choice in their actions and threatens to make himself collateral damage of their smiting, so Castiel allows the brothers to save the town. It’s later revealed that the angels’ true orders were not actually to prevent the seal being broken — they were to follow Dean’s orders in battlefield conditions, no matter what: a test of Dean’s heart and mind, duty and strategy.

This episode is crucial in the molding of Team Free Will for two reasons. Firstly, we see Sam — both a curious scholar by nature and an eternal optimist desperate to have faith in anything — reacting with thrill and awe upon meeting Castiel for the first time. He’s more than a little disappointed when he learns that the angels think rather badly of him, and further distressed that they’re not the glorious beings of mercy and goodwill that he’d clearly imagined.

Dean, of course, had no such reverence upon his discovery of the divine, and this instinctive difference colors their individual relationships with Cas throughout the series — powers and practicalities aside, Dean is unwilling or unable to think of Cas as anything other than a person, and often applies human logic, standards and expectations to Castiel’s choices and behavior.

Sam, as the series progresses and their relationship improves, rarely loses sight of Cas’s place among the stars — he never forgets that Cas is something other than them, and that his perspective comes from a different plane of existence and experience. Sam cares about all the mysteries of the universe, and to him, Castiel never stops representing the proof and power of faith, and never stops seeming endlessly fascinating as a resource that contains all the knowledge in creation. Sam tends to accept Castiel’s angelhood wholly, and tends to need to talk Dean off ledges about this, reminding him that their reality is not always the same as Cas’s reality.

Secondly, Dean’s reluctance to remember that Cas is a divine warrior of God may have its downsides (a lot of inappropriate impatience and anger and worry, the aforementioned ledges) but overall, it’s that same quality that inspired his autonomy and led Cas to his role as the Winchesters’ greatest ally and closest friend, and this episode is where that journey truly starts. After the battle with Samhain, Dean and Cas share a moment together in a park, watching over the local children that they saved, and it’s here that Cas expresses his first moral quandaries about Heaven’s plan, and how the attitude of the angels may not be in line with God’s love for humanity.

Castiel ends up believing in humanity so much that he’s favored by God and blacklisted from Heaven because of it, so much that, for all intents and purposes, he becomes one of them, and it all starts here. In challenging him on the concept of choice, Dean lights a spark in Cas, one that blows up into a bonfire: skepticism, demotion, rebellion, brainwashing, and ultimately, freedom – true personhood.

Season 5

‘The Song Remains the Same’

‘This is it. Team Free Will. One ex-blood junkie, one dropout with six bucks to his name, and Mr. Comatose over there.’

As the apocalypse draws nearer, Sam and Dean challenge their fate as vessels born and bred to house Michael and Lucifer, and Castiel remains firmly Fallen by their side. After the events of season 4, the three have become a solid team with a lot of mutual trust, and it’s here that Anna, the first fallen angel that the brothers met, reappears on the scene. Claiming to have escaped, but apparently cosmically reset by Heaven (as we see happen to Cas several times throughout the series) she arrives with a new mission: to kill Sam before he can say yes to Lucifer.

When her efforts to convince Castiel about this plan fail — even if it seems like the best strategy for averting Armageddon, Cas won’t play ball, because he considers Sam his friend — she travels back in time to 1978, planning to kill John and Mary Winchester first, so that Dean and Sam are never born. The brothers also make the jump via Castiel, who, due to being cut off from Heaven, is severely weakened by using his powers this way, leaving Sam and Dean pretty concerned about his wellbeing. Cas spends most of his time in 1978 cooped up in the honeymoon suite of a motel recovering while the brothers track down Anna.

Sam and Dean are able to save their parents, but not before Michael appears for the first time, possessing a young John Winchester in order to stop Anna and make contact with Dean. This marks the pair’s one and only significant conversation in the entire series. While Sam spends much of the episode — and the season — pondering about whether destiny is destiny for a reason and constantly questions the idea of whether the brothers will say yes to their archangels, Michael’s insistence about determinism may as well be gasoline when it comes to Dean’s fiery “fuck you” spirit. “Free will’s an illusion,” Dean’s told, so he promptly dubs his merry band of misfits Team Free Will, and their mission statement of finding a better way against all odds is one that Supernatural returns to again and again over the years, a maxim the members remind one another of when the chips are down.

Revisiting this episode at this point in time is a very interesting experience, because as we count down to season 14, we can circle back to this moment — the official formation of Team Free Will and how Michael’s pursuit of Dean inspired it — and juxtapose it against the show’s current state of affairs, where Dean has actually finally fulfilled that destiny, in a left-handed way. Everything that he fought against, everything that Cas fell for, did eventually come to pass, and it will be very interesting to see whether the new Michael will leave any members of Team Free Will feeling like their core foundations have crumbled, or whether it will strengthen their resolve more than ever.

Season 6

‘The Man Who Would Be King’

‘It sounds so simple when you say it like that. Where were you when I needed to hear it?’ ‘I was there. Where were you?’

After a year spent isolated from one another — Sam in Hell, Cas in Heaven, Dean in Domestic Dad Mode — Team Free Will are all in very different places emotionally upon their reunion, but the gang falls somewhat back into step as they deal with the season’s obstacles, including Sam’s missing soul, several run-ins with Crowley and Raphael, and the introduction of Balthazar, one of very few angels who Castiel genuinely considers a good friend, and one of very few angels that’s ever showed interest in the hedonistic pleasures of humanity.

It’s here we start to explore the idea of just how unusual Castiel is, in terms of his capacity for free will, as Balthazar offers an angelic perspective on how Cas changed the game for angelkind (“You proved to me we could do anything, so I’m trying everything.”) and this divisive angelic take on Cas — those who see him as defective vs. those who see him as inspirational — is a recurring argument throughout the series. At this point, he seems to feel that his gift for autonomy is both a blessing and a burden, a weapon he does not quite know how to wield.

Season 6 is basically one long stumbling block for Cas, as he flies solo for the first time using free will in his attempts to protect Sam and Dean, and makes a lot of mistakes that take years to recover from. As he says, “explaining freedom to angels is a bit like teaching poetry to fish,” and without Dean on hand as his Mutineers Anonymous sponsor, what happens next proves that Cas himself is not excluded from that generalization, an issue that the pair argue about in this episode, as Dean chides Cas with a mirrored take on Balthazar’s perception — “Just because you can do what you want doesn’t mean that you get to do whatever you want!”

While he was open all season about the threat that Raphael, who wants to rerail the Apocalypse, posed, it’s now revealed that Cas made a deal with the demon Crowley, dirtying his hands in order to keep Sam and Dean’s world-saving achievements alive, and that he avoided going to Dean for help during the year Sam was lost because he felt like Dean deserved no further sacrifice. When Cas’s plan goes south, there’s a tragic conflict between the brothers and the angel, which leads to Cas being corrupted by Leviathan and then killed, leaving him offscreen for most of the following season.

While fascinating, season 6 is an exercise in misery, with clues of Castiel’s betrayal planted right from the start. It’s retrospectively ridiculous that they feel this horrified by Cas working with Crowley, given that Crowley ends up becoming a de facto member of Team Free Will in the long run, but what makes it hurt so badly — what the heart of it all is — is the fact that the Winchesters’ pain is rooted in their love for Cas and their disbelief that he could do this to them, even if he claims he was doing it for them. Dean takes it particularly hard — Sam and Bobby both suspected that something was off, but Dean’s loyalty to Cas runs so deep that he refuses to believe the possibility until proof is forced into his face.

The pain this causes would simply not exist if they did not care about each other so much. This episode is the first in which the Winchesters actually verbalize Cas’s place in their hearts — Sam saying that he’d die for Castiel, Dean telling Cas to his face that Cas is his family. He is desperate to believe the best of Cas, and when he has to come to terms with reality, he’s crushed. Their showdown is deeply illuminating in terms of just how close they’ve become and what each of them believes that should mean: for Cas, loving someone means keeping any burden off their back, no matter the cost, and for Dean, loving someone means carrying every burden together, no matter the cost.

Season 7

‘Survival of the Fittest’

‘Bottom of the ninth, and you’re the only guy left on the bench… Sorry, but I’d rather have you, cursed or not.’

Season 7 took Castiel out of the picture and sent the brothers on the run after the Leviathans dissolve the angel into nothingless and frame the brothers for some very public crimes. Bobby’s house burns down, he’s later killed, and the boys are banned even from using the Impala. More alone than ever, more homeless than ever, more hopeless than ever, it’s a dark, depressing year, as Dean starts drinking heavily, furious at Castiel’s actions during season 6 but yet still traumatized by his death, and Sam, broken down by the flood of memories from his time in Hell, struggles with serious mental health problems as he begins to see hallucinations of Lucifer stalking him.

It’s not fun. It’s all very horrible and the moments of levity that handwave the brothers’ predicament for the sake of giving the audience breathing room feel inappropriate and inconsistent. Season 7 tried a lot of new things to shake up the structure of Supernatural, but most of them should not be repeated. The upside of all of this is that the discord that this season caused both onscreen and off proved that Cas had become crucial to both the show’s success and to brothers’ lives. Despite his actions, and perhaps despite the intentions of writers at that point, the relationship between Cas and the Winchesters had obviously reached “forgiveness no matter what” territory to most viewers — the fans were not going to let go of him, and neither were the brothers.

Absent from episode 2 until episode 17, Castiel’s recovery and redemption is the emotional crux of the season. It turns out that he was resurrected by a higher power but believed himself to be a human being with amnesia, and he’s been living and working as a faith healer, apparently married to the woman who found him wandering around lost, memoryless and naked — not weird or exploitative at all, there’s a lot of unanswered ethical and narrative questions about that nonsense still lingering, but whatever. Dean, who can’t figure out a better way to help Sam than leaving him in the mental institution he was accidentally admitted to, and fearing that he’s beyond repair, follows a lead about this faith healer, and is shocked to discover that it’s Cas. Their reunion is difficult, but touching, and when “Emmanuel” starts experimenting with his powers, his memories come back, and he heals Sam by taking the troubles of Sam’s fractured mind into himself, leaving him damaged instead.

In the season finale, Cas is still, as Crowley so delicately puts it, off his rocker — he’s been driven mad by his own PTSD and Sam’s, and becomes childish and non-confrontational, full of sweet, non-sequiturial whimsy and unwilling to join any “aggressive activity,” leaning into a desire to merely be at safely at peace with the universe. The brothers are of course frustrated by this, but Dean draws Cas out and is able to get some of the real story: that Cas discovered that his actions had resulted in the death of his whole garrison, and that believes that anything he tries to do will only ever result in disaster, so has declared himself a non-combatant and given himself over to the freedom of his insanity.

It’s only when Dean changes tack, and accepts Cas’s feelings, that progress is made. He begins asking Cas for help in different ways (like taking him get the Impala back) and his compassion here allows Cas to pull himself together and start putting things into perspective and re-prioritizing. He opens up, telling Dean that he believes that his resurrection was a punishment and that he’s doomed to fail – that the team is better off without his help. When Dean reminds him that they’re all kind of cursed around here, but regardless of that, Dean would still choose to rely on him any day, Cas realizes that Dean has forgiven him, and starts asking about how he can contribute once more.

Season 8

‘Hunteri Heroici’

‘I could be your third wheel.’ ‘You know that’s not a good thing, right?’ ‘Of course it is. A third wheel adds extra grip, greater stability.’

As things begin to return to normal — well, as normal as they can be — after Dean and Castiel’s stint in Purgatory and Sam’s year with Amelia, Cas is still feeling the weight of his crimes during season 6 and 7, and cuts himself off from angel radio in order to avoid dealing with the guilt of it all. Instead, he asks Sam and Dean to train him as a hunter, and even brings them an unusual monster-of-the-week case that he spots in a newspaper.

“Hunteri Heroici,” the first solo writing credit from current showrunner Andrew Dabb, is one of the series’ most underrated gems, combining meta absurdity — the mystery is about a criminal who’s able to wield cartoon logic like magic, plain comedy — Cas attempting to practice undercover hunting and being “bad everything,” and deeply heartfelt emotional moments between the members of Team Free Will themselves and with the victim at the center of the case. It even manages to make the Amelia flashbacks feel powerful and valuable — the only episode of season 8 to do so.

Sam and Dean are happy enough to teach Cas how to do things their way, and it sets some precedents for what would later in the series become common, in terms of Cas joining the boys on the road for regular hunter cases. Remember, this is pre-Bunker, no home base, and Castiel still has most of his powers, including his wings, making him still a somewhat transient presence in their lives. So here, we see Dean tell Cas that if he’s going to roll with them, he’s literally going to have to roll with them — riding in the Impala, no teleporting.

After the trouble Dean and Cas faced in Purgatory, it’s unsurprising that Dean has become a bit more protective, and his order that Cas stick with them is probably the closest Dean’s ever come to spelling out his requirements for Cas’s friendship — remember what we were saying above, about Dean applying human logic to Cas? There’s a recurring issue of Dean being hurt by Cas’ transience because he’s applying human-level worry to both Cas’s whereabouts and his emotional investment in the Winchesters.

Dean really pushes himself to express his care in this episode — it’s a rare early example of the “use your words” learning curve that thankfully becomes more ingrained in the show’s current era. There’s a particular conversation in which Dean checks in on Cas after his return from Purgatory, tells him that he’s thrilled to have Cas back, and suggests that he might want to get an angelic check-up to make sure that nothing outside of their control is going on. Of course, it is — Naomi pulled Cas out of Purgatory, and is brainwashing him — but Dean and Cas are both entirely unaware of it. So when Cas reacts badly to this suggestion and refuses to even think about visiting Heaven, Dean takes the time to get him to open up about his mental state, discovering just how deeply Cas is scarred by his own past.

Sam and Cas also share a very unique moment of connection, as they enter the cartoon landscape mind of Fred Jones, the psychokinetic old hunter whose power has been exploited by the owner of his care home. As Sam clearly injects his own trauma into his conversation with Fred, Castiel also takes the lesson Sam is imparting, about the problems of avoiding reality, to heart, and after helping to neutralize Fred, admits that he too cannot run away from his mistakes anymore.

Castiel’s interpretation of the “third wheel” concept at beginning of the episode is kind of a brilliant summary of how his presence has changed the shape of the show: that despite the assumed impression of a third wheel being a unnecessary factor – of say, a perfectly functioning bike — a little rearranging of perspective leaves you with a safer, smoother, more powerful and more reliable vehicle than you had before. Team Tricycle for the win.

Season 9

‘First Born’

‘The only person who has screwed things up more consistently than you…is me. And now I know what that guilt feels like.’

Season 9 was a turning point for Team Free Will in a lot of ways — Dean and Sam are more divided than ever, struggling to balance their love for one another with their respect for one another. After Dean allows Sam to be secretly possessed by an angel, tricking him inside his own mind in order to save his life, major conflict erupts between the brothers when the truth is revealed — to the point where they take some time apart. Rebuilding after this crisis eventually reshapes Sam and Dean’s relationship into a much healthier one, but it also has huge consequences for Castiel.

Dean was forced by the angel Gadreel, masquerading as Ezekiel, to kick Cas out of their home, allegedly for Sam’s safety — which turned out to be a lie, as Gadreel was actually a criminal angel on the run. Sam’s possession unfortunately coincides with Cas’ greatest moment of need, as he was left effectively human in the season 8 finale — so we see Cas, totally helpless, sent away, which of course results in a ton of baggage as he internalizes the idea that he’s only wanted by the Winchesters as a powerful weapon, not as a regular person, and he ends up doing some ruthless things to regain his grace and be useful to the team once again. The truth about all of it comes out and Dean apologizes, but the entire thing dusts off a lot of messy personal dynamics and holds them up into the light.

The positive spin on this personal crisis is that it draws Cas closer each of the brothers in different ways. “First Born” is a rare episode that contains no scenes of the brothers together, and sees Cas stick by Sam after Dean and Sam’s “break-up,” as he tries to finish the healing that Gadreel started. Sam and Cas one-on-one is a rare commodity — it’s no secret that Dean is portrayed as closer to both of them than each of them are to one another — but what they do share is something really special and separate, which frankly deserves more screen time.

Sam, unlike Dean, is not particularly constipated when it comes to saying what he means or feels, and Sam, unlike Dean, is always extremely conscious of Cas’s angelhood — he thinks about what it might mean and how it makes things different for Cas with a mix of consideration and curiosity. So it’s extremely fitting that it’s here, with Sam, that we fully appreciate the transformation that Cas has undergone and how it’s fundamentally changed him.

Now that he’s been human, he has a visceral understanding of humanity and all its pleasures and sorrows — empathy rather than sympathy for their predicament. The idea that grace dulls emotional and sensory processing has been raised a few times on Supernatural, and while Cas always translated the language of humanity quicker than other angels, he’s now experienced fluency, and it’s something that he continues to carry with him to this day, making it easier for him to relate to the brothers and understand the personal consequences of his actions.

Sam and Cas are both extremely philosophical, they’re both ruthless about doing the right thing, and they have both been hugely corrupted in their attempts to do so, which has made them both even more ruthless about making amends. This connection is something that they speak about here, as together they discover that they have the potential to track down Gadreel, at great cost to Sam’s recovery. They proceed, pushing one another onwards, until finally Castiel cracks, unable to risk Sam’s wellbeing for the sake of the greater good — which in turn helps Sam to go easy on himself as well. Yes, neither of them would have gotten that far along in the process if Dean was there yelling that they were both idiots for trying it, but it feels important that they learnt the lesson of what they owe to each other while alone together, united in stubbornness to the detriment of their safety, and of course, Sam teaching Cas to hug is one of Supernatural’s sweetest moments ever.

Season 10

‘Angel Heart’

‘He gave up his body, his vessel, and because he did that, Cas… Cas was able to save the world. The world. Your father’s a hero, he did not die in vain.’

“Angel Heart” sees Castiel reconnect with his vessel’s daughter Claire Novak, after their initial reunion earlier on in season 10. When Cas gets a call from a hospital as Claire’s emergency contact, Sam and Dean join him for moral support as he tries to help the teen in any way that he can. The trio ends up assisting Claire in her quest to track down her absent mother, and together they try to be responsible guardians while also teaching Claire a few tricks of the hunter’s trade — the Three Men and a Baby comedic aspect of this episode is so all-encompassing that it include literal “take your daughter to work day” jokes.

Team Free Will are as united as can be, with the best of intentions, and although Dean’s struggle bearing the Mark of Cain does influence things as he becomes more violent and out of control when dealing with enemies, the episode is ultimately about finding peace and closure for all three members of the Novak family. The boys and Claire discover that Amelia didn’t actually abandon her daughter — she was kidnapped by a Grigori, an unusual class of angel, while searching for Jimmy, and along with many other victims, the Grigori has been feeding off her soul. Claire is able to reconcile with her mother before Amelia dies, Amelia is able to enter Heaven, and we finally get onscreen confirmation that Jimmy Novak himself is also in Heaven — that he’s been truly dead for years, and that Cas’ resurrected body is merely a copy, all his own.

This fact, combined with a lovely, validating conversation Dean has with Claire about Cas and her dad both being heroes who together helped save the world, allows Claire to fully connect with Castiel as his own person, becoming fond of him for who he is and the care he has for her wellbeing. Through these events, Claire and Dean also overcome their prior conflict and form a close, peer-like friendship which, of course, carries well into the future of the show, as it’s here that Sam and Dean set Claire up to live with Jody Mills, planting the seeds for Wayward Sisters. Cas and Claire haven’t shared an episode since this one, which is a real shame, as this relationship is one that deserved further exploration, either on Supernatural with all three of the boys present, or on the aborted Wayward spinoff.

“Angel Heart” represents Team Free Will growing and strengthening their little family, and it’s just really, really cute. The fact that this entire episode is ultimately about the Winchesters supporting Castiel through a personal issue is cute. Cas buying Claire a Grumpy Cat plushie is cute. Sam teaching Claire about credit card fraud is cute. Dean and Claire bickering about mini golf is cute. The brothers giving Cas parenting advice is cute. Dean smashing a guy’s head into a table in defense of Claire’s honor is cute. Claire asking the boys to look after Cas is cute. It’s all just very, very, very cute, amidst the trauma, which is how Supernatural should always be.

Season 11

‘Hell’s Angel’

‘Dean, this is exactly how we screw ourselves. We make the heart choice, instead of the smart choice.’

Jumping ahead to season 11, the Sam/Dean/Cas troika truly becomes the central core of the show. They stick together and look after one another as a matter of course, and plotlines that separate them are not to do with any internal conflict or discord. That’s what makes the Cas-as-Lucifer story so painful — despite the solidity of his relationship with Sam and Dean, Cas still feels really unworthy, so when Sam refuses to become Lucifer’s vessel again, Castiel does it because he thinks it’s the only chance the group has to beat the Darkness, and he considers himself the most expendable.

When the brothers discover what Cas has done, they are torn over the best course of action, and this episode is an incredible example of the progress that’s been made in each individual relationship dynamic. Even though Cas himself is not really present — he’s tucked away watching TV in the Bunker’s kitchen, inside his own mind — the entire plot revolves around the unconditional love that both Sam and Dean have for Castiel, and how that presents differently itself in each of them when faced with the chance to extract Lucifer from Cas.

When Crowley shows up with a weapon that may help the fight, his bargain is that he wants Lucifer sent back to the Cage in return. As they begin to debate the pros and cons and the order everything needs to happen in, what it boils down to is this: Dean wants Lucifer exorcised out of Cas before Cas is put into any danger, despite the fact that Cas chose to offer himself up as a vessel, because Cas is family and saving him is non-negotiable, no matter what dumb ideas Cas had about facing Amara, whereas Sam trusts Cas’s angelic resilience, sees the logic in his plan, and wants Cas’ choices to be honored, because Cas is family and Sam knows all too well what being loved by Dean Winchester is like in terms of having your autonomy respected.

Before the brothers come to an agreement, their hands are forced by Rowena and Crowley, and together they attempt the exorcism. Dean desperately tries to get through to Cas, attempting to break Lucifer’s hold, and eventually Crowley has to possess Cas to give him the message that Dean wants him to expel Lucifer, but it’s too late — Lucifer gains back control, and before anything else can be done, Amara arrives and takes Casifer away with her, leaving the brothers shell-shocked.

Sam and Dean reflect on the day’s events and apologize to one another like grown adults for the conflict caused by their differences in opinion, as they each see the other’s point of view — Sam has a change of heart about letting Cas face Amara now that she’s actually got her hands on him, and Dean reminds his brother of Team Free Will’s mutual agreement not to interfere with each other when one person makes a choice that the others don’t agree with. They recognize that this is a good family policy and that they do need it in place in order to keep their relationships healthy, but that right now they’re going to ignore the hell out of it in order to “find that idiot and bring him home.”

There’s really no looking back for the group from here on out — once Cas returns to them in the season 11 finale, there are no hard feelings about his decision, and Dean takes the time to tell him how much he means to their family. Dean’s eventual sacrifice, and the fact that everyone sadly allows him to make it — as the smart choice, not the heart choice — breaks the cycle of guilt and baggage that the brothers and Cas have caused each other over the years while trying to save one another, and when Dean is spared, it leaves Team Free Will absolutely unbreakable.

Season 12

‘The Future’

‘We will find a better way.’ ‘You mean, we?’ ‘Yes, dumbass. We. You, me, and Sam, we’re just better together.’

As Supernatural enters a new era under a new showrunner, there’s a noticeable shift in how Castiel’s presence on the show is handled. What’s been firming up over the past few seasons, since his time as a human, is now set in stone: Cas is established as a permanent presence in the brothers’ lives. The Bunker is his home, the Winchesters are his family, and if time passes where they’re apart, it’s portrayed as stressful and unusual, with references or one-sided phone calls written into episodes that Castiel doesn’t star in order to explain his whereabouts.

The entire season is richer than any that preceded it in terms of Team Free Will content, and episodes like “Lily Sunder Has Some Regrets” and “Stuck In The Middle (With You)” are almost gleefully indulgent in broadcasting the message that Supernatural wants to make damn sure the audience hears: that Castiel’s value is non-negotiable to the Winchesters, that he is deeply loved, and that the brothers would do anything for him in the same way that they’d do anything for one another.

The reintroduction of Mary Winchester adds a new element to the mix, as we see the relationships through her lens, and see her form her own bond with Cas too, and the way that the Winchester brothers embrace the fact that they really and truly aren’t alone against the world anymore, that they’re able to throw their safety net wider and actually rely on it to catch them, is revolutionary in terms of this show’s structure and status quo.

“The Future” is an interesting example of just how much everything has changed, because to the brothers, it appears that Castiel is backpedaling into old patterns, as he goes off the grid for several episodes, to the point where Dean is hacking the records of hospitals and morgues and having Sheriff Mills put out APBs — and when he returns and admits that he’s been in Heaven seeking guidance, he also steals the Colt from under Dean’s pillow in order to handle things with Kelly Kline himself, so that Sam and Dean don’t have to bear the weight of the task at hand.

When the brothers realize that Cas wasn’t entirely honest with them, they’re pissed, but they also realize that he must be in serious trouble, and justify his behavior to one another — there’s no doubt about his motivation, or talk of betrayal. They manage to track him down to let him know that they’ve figured out a way to save Kelly and her baby and still neutralize the threat of the nephilim’s power.

Once again frustrated by Cas’ attempts to protect them behind their backs, Sam and Dean remind him that that’s not his responsibility, and that he should have called them and asked for help. Once they’ve agreed to to go home and talk it out, the nephilim works his unborn mojo on Cas, giving him a change of heart and sending him on a quest with Kelly that leads to his shocking death.

Ultimately, “The Future” was a red herring that set up the events of the finale and season 13 — we now know that the nephilim, Jack, is a positive force who is also beloved by the brothers, and while Cas appeared to be brainwashed at the end, he was truly in the right and acting with a higher purpose. But Sam and Dean’s perspective throughout the episode, given the information they had available, was entirely reasonable, and what’s amazing about it is how differently they go about handling it and communicating with Cas about it.

Yes, they lash out about his vanishing act, but Dean actually later spells out in as many words that his behavior was motivated by worry for Castiel’s wellbeing, and reminds Cas that they’re always stronger as a team than when they go rogue and try to handle things alone to save one another from pain. This episode is also where you’ll find the infamous “mixtape moment,” as we see Cas try to return a gift that Dean must have made for him before he went out on the road alone, a gesture that happened off screen, but nevertheless paints a picture of the personal dynamics at play in the Winchester home.

Season 13


‘We must assemble our most powerful allies to rescue our family and confront the Archangel Michael.’

Hahahahahaha. You did actually watch season 13, right? Like, you remember the part where everything that they built in season 12 was taken from them, and Castiel’s death sent Dean into a nihilistic despair that resulted in his own reckless near-suicide, and the part where Sam became stubbornly, delusionally optimistic about scraping his family back together in any possible way? You did notice how Jack, lost and confused and desperate to be loved, reached out into the void and woke Castiel from an impossible afterlife, giving Cas the chance to fight for his right to life and come home to the people who need him?

Remember how the literal plot of the entire season was about a) getting Cas back, b) getting Mary back and c) getting Jack back, about proving that Sam and Dean are unable to cope with a regression to their old lonely lives, that they’re absolutely unwilling to accept the possibility that they’ve lost the family that they’ve come to depend upon for stability? That the show’s initial structure, the one it cut its teeth on — Sam and Dean with no one to hold onto but one another — is not something that Sam and Dean actually want, or will ever be prepared to live with, ever again?

You do remember how, despite tons of progress in the previous two seasons, everything about the way Cas had previously been treated was totally upgraded in the wake of his resurrection, how Dean was forthright and gentle and open when expressing his concerns about Cas getting killed again, and instead of blowing up in misguided anger when he’s worried, simply asking if Cas needed his help and respecting Cas’ explanations?

Remember how the Supernatural writers constructed a story that only allowed Cas to be missing from the Bunker because the brothers believed that they were constantly in contact with him — where a shapeshifting villain was forced to imitate Cas’ voice on a daily basis to keep the Winchesters happy, because anything less than that level of checking in would no longer make plausible narrative sense? Remember how once that truth came to light, the show dedicated valuable airtime to giving Cas a considerate apology because the brothers did not realize his predicament and come to save him, one that he brushes off as totally unnecessary?

Remember how patient everyone was with one another the whole damn time, how forgiving, how measured, even at moments that raised serious red flags, and how week after week, they just kept on have thoughtful conversations about their different perspectives and plans, trusting one another’s judgement and hearing each other out?

Remember how they’re all getting second chances with more lost loved ones — Bobby and Charlie and Gabriel — and embracing all the friends and allies that they can find? Remember how against all odds, Jack brought everyone together and was drawn into the heart of the family by every member in individual ways. Remember “Tombstone,” and Dean’s relabelling of his reunited gang as Team Free Will 2.0? Remember Sam’s dream about a happy dinner table, and Dean’s fantasy of retiring on a beach vacation? Remember that? Yeah. Check and mate.

Anyway, while there are a ton of important season 13 episodes that feature Sam, Dean and Cas together or explore their dynamics more deeply, the reason “Funeralia” stands out is actually because it isn’t a Team Free Will On A Joint Mission story. Instead, it’s a classic example of a Sam and Dean A-plot, Castiel and Heaven B-plot episode — Sam and Dean tracking down Rowena, Castiel confronting Naomi in Heaven — but with a twist.

Amping up from season 12, this year, Supernatural employed expositional tactics about Cas’s whereabouts in nearly every episode, to the point of actually referencing him as elsewhere in the Bunker during episodes he doesn’t appear in — as in, canonically present, but not in the same room at that moment. The motivation behind this is similar to that of the structure of “Funeralia” — Sam, Dean and Cas start the episode together at home because that is simply what they do now, and how they live every single day of their lives.

In the past, an episode like “Funeralia” would, usually for ease of filming schedules, begin a story like this already on the road — but season 12’s “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell” is the last example of that tactic. Since then, if Sam, Dean and Cas all appear in an episode and aren’t separated by force (“The Big Empty,” “Various and Sundry Villains,”) they will always share at least one scene as a unit, even if they then take separate journeys, because it does not feel right for them not to, these days.

Team Free Will isn’t just a name anymore — it’s a lifestyle. It’s a model, and it’s reshaped Supernatural from its tragic gothic horror roots to an adventure drama filled with hope and color. And all of that traces back to Castiel. He has saved Sam and Dean in so many ways. He’s saved them literally, of course. But over the years, when the show was more trigger-happy about human recurring characters, the fact that Cas remained — immortality has its perks — allowed Sam and Dean to get used to depending on someone other than each other.

If you’re someone with abandonment issues, when you’re scared to get close to someone because you don’t want to open yourself up to the pain of losing them, having a best friend who’s pretty much bombproof is really helpful in overcoming that. Yes, they have lost Cas, or worried about his wellbeing plenty of times, but because he’s endured at their side, more indestructible than most, this has, consciously or subconsciously, allowed them to step out of isolation and to open their hearts to new people and new possibilities, rather than loving as little as possible as a self preservation tactic.

Season 14 promises to delve even more deeply into these personal dynamics, and given the predicament we left the family in, it’s hard to imagine any way in which anyone involved will have a change of heart about the value of these relationships. We’ll see Sam and Cas united in a common goal to save Dean from Michael, and given that they each have the prior experience of being possessed by an archangel, we hope that Dean will lean into his support network and keep making strides in expressing how he feels.

We’ll see Cas further connecting to Jack, and through comforting him about his worth despite his lack of firepower, we hope that Cas will internalize his own advice and feel more at home than ever too. We’ll see an ensemble cast drawn into the core story, more friends and family members, all given valid points of view, and we hope that this means a future where Team Free Will continue to expand their heart and home and fight for their right to happiness. Good things do happen, indeed.

‘Supernatural’ returns October 11, 8/7c on The CW

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