Ever since the angels were introduced as major characters on Supernatural, they've been used to talk about questions of free will versus obedience to some divine plan. And last night's episode, written by the great Ben Edlund, took that theme in a fascinating direction — by showing us what creatures with free will are capable of.
First of all, it must be said — Supernatural is on a major creative upswing. This season started out as a bit of a waste, with things like Sam's veterinarian ex-girlfriend dragging the storytelling into a quagmire. Since "LARP and the Real Girl," though, the show has oscillated between "watchable" and "excellent." And this is the fifth episode in a row that was really good. A lot depends on the upcoming season finale, but Supernatural is threatening to become a great show again, something that seemed impossible not long ago.
But even during the show's glory days, "The Great Escapist" would have been considered a standout episode, for all the layers it brings to the show's angel mythology — and all the ideas it brings up.
One of the frustrating things about Supernatural season eight has been the notion that angels are basically computers, and you can hack into their hardware and reprogram them — which is what Amanda Tapping's Naomi was doing with Castiel for a long stretch. This might jibe with the somewhat android-esque line delivery that Misha Collins sometimes uses, but it comes dangerously close to diminishing the angels as major players, and makes them potentially way less interesting as well. If the angels are like the T-800, and you can change their operating instructions, then what's the point of them?
But part of the genius of Ben Edlund's script last night is that he takes that questionable idea and builds it into a larger framework of free will vs. "following the plan." He brings the show back to the ideas that were being brought up back in season five, but spins a whole new wheel around them.
"The Great Escapist" has two angel-centric storylines, which don't intersect at all — except through the demon Crowley. But they both have to do with questions of freedom and whether the angels are meant to be worker bees, the shepherds of humanity, or the rulers of the cosmos.
The Winchesters track down the angel Metatron, who is basically God's scribe, and he's hiding out from the other angels in a deserted Native American reservation, surrounded by millions of books. Metatron made a deal with the local tribe years ago, to grant them longevity and protection, in return for stories.
The reason why Metatron is hiding from the other angels is because, as the writer of the word of God, he's got access to incredible power — after God went "deadbeat dad" on the cosmos, the other angels wanted to take over as the lords of creation, but they couldn't do that without Metatron's help. Later in the episode, we see him slip inside Crowley's sanctum, past tons of angel warding, with zero effort, because he can just erase any writing.
And yet, even though it's hinted that Metatron's own writing can reshape the fabric of creation, he still prizes humans and our stories. Because our inventiveness, our ability to make up stories, is the product of our free will — that's how we know that we're able to make our own choices, in fact. Whenever we write a story, we become like the gods of our own pocket dimensions that we've created. I've never seen free will and storytelling linked in quite that way before, and it's a pretty amazing notion.
The angels, meanwhile, have a problem with freedom of choice, as evinced by Naomi and her lieutenants, who finally track down Castiel — in a very Ben Edlund twist, Castiel has been hiding from the angels by using the sameness of the Biggersons restaurant chain to mask his location — and reveal that they've been screwing with Castiel's brain for a long, long time. Like, Castiel took part in the brutal slaughter of the first born in Egypt, but has no memory of it because they wiped his brain.
But it turns out that Castiel has been a problem for a long time, never quite following instructions and never entirely having his mind erased properly — which makes you wonder why they entrusted him with the all-important "pull Dean out of Hell" mission in the first place. Not crazy about this retcon, to be honest. But at least now Castiel's habit of rebelling and striking a blow for free will is being linked to the notion of the angels being programmable. Castiel's own uprising against the angels proves this isn't entirely true.
And after Naomi is driven away by Crowley, we get a great moment between Castiel and Ion, the angel who's working for Crowley — Ion says that as one of Naomi's lieutenants, he was never entirely allowed to forget the terrible things they did, but everybody in Heaven has been screwed around with so much that they have no clue what, if anything, the divine plan was originally. This is the problem with trying to control people the way Naomi does — you end up not with loyal brainwashed soldiers, but with nihilistic traitors like Ion, who believe that nothing matters and nobody is worth believing in, so they might as well sell out to the highest bidder.
Oh, and score one for humans and our ability to resist — this episode also sees the VERY long-awaited rise of Badass Kevin Tran, who cannot be broken by Crowley any longer, and sees through Crowley's hilarious ruse of sending Fake Sam and Fake Dean to see him. The scenes where Kevin outwits the demons by sending them for ribs and pad thai are like the perfect encapsulation of how free will leads to creativity, after all.
(Also great: This episode finally deals with the fact that Sam used to be the "cursed" one with the demon blood and now he's doing the holy trials — in fact, Sam feels as though doing these trials is finally "purifying" him and removing his stain once and for all.)
In the end, Crowley has the Angel Tablet, but the Winchesters at last know what the final trial is: cure a demon. And they're reunited with Castiel. But there's one last interesting nugget about free will — the tough thing about the "shutting the gates of Hell" thing isn't just the fact that you have to do three tasks. It's the choice, that humans have to make freely — to close Hell forever, they have to be willing to take the consequences. Which aren't spelled out, but which I'm guessing will turn out to be something fairly nasty, not just for Sam but probably for the world as well.