Profound bonds and rebellious soldiers: shipping Dean and Castiel

One of the most enduring and appealing aspects of Supernatural is Castiel the (now fallen) angel, and the relationship between Dean Winchester and Castiel. The first three seasons of Supernatural already had me obsessed. Season 4 came around, and Castiel, and Dean and Castiel, blindsided me. Castiel’s arrival was shrouded in secrecy–at his audition, Misha Collins was even at first told he was reading for a demon, that’s how secretive it was. I’d heard no spoilers about angels arriving on Supernatural, or about Castiel.

I had no idea what I was getting into.

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Castiel’s entrance was certainly striking, barn roof banging, sparks literally flying, Dean’s response–Dean, who back in season two said there was no such thing as angels, went face to face with one. Stabbed him in the chest, in fact. How’s that for “meeting cute”?

Not only was the entrance visually dramatic, there was a dynamic between this battered hunter and this remote, fierce being right from the get-go. It started as wary, tense, and mutually curious, a tentative discovering of kindred spirits, tested loyalties, and then a friendship that continued to grow over the seasons, until they were like family, like brothers, and maybe something else as well, somewhere buried where neither of them want to look at it or know what to do with it. The UST (unresolved sexual tension) factor has always been humming, in part due to chemistry between Jensen Ackles (Dean) and Misha Collins (Castiel), in part due to some purposeful subtext in the writing, in part actor and directorial decisions.  Whether the romantic aspect ever becomes canon or not, it’s too late, the possibilities are out there, and many fans see and appreciate it. They hope it becomes canon, and while fans can’t dictate the way a story will go, they have expressed the support that will be there if it happens, and argued why it’s a good idea.

This romantic lens, however, is far from the entire picture of Dean and Castiel. This tension, the hints and nods, are interwoven with the evolution of “the profound bond” that started when Castiel saw Dean at his very worst in Hell, after Dean broke under torture and became a torturer of souls himself, and rescued him. What started as a mission, with Dean as the angelic tool, became deeply personal for Castiel. It’s a little like soldiers who meet during the most horrific aspects of one war, wind up fighting side by side in another, and become BFFs forever after.

We’ve been through much together, you and I.

In some ways, I got into this pairing backwards. I shipped it before I fell in love with the emotional bond, in part because it took time for that bond to develop, in part because it confounded my expectations of what, exactly, this was.

I shipped literally at first sight, but by “shipped” I mean in the sense that I thought it was kind of intriguing and sexy, not that I was prepared for it to devour a good chunk of my heart. There are different kinds of shipping. As my enjoyment of the textual Dean and Castiel friendship grew, so did my view of the ship.

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Don’t get me wrong, it was intriguing in those first moments regardless of shipping for a myriad of reasons. It was the on-screen character dynamics, as well as the chemistry and potential, that grabbed me.

Here was Dean, whose father drilled into his head from the time he was four years old that his one job in life was to protect his little brother Sam. I’ve always loved the sibling relationship, the ways they’re different and also so similar, how they know each other and also don’t, their loyalty to each other, the respect and the conflicts. Sam, looking for a life beyond hunting, who left to go to Stanford but came back to the hunting life for family, and Dean, who internalized the motto, “saving people, hunting things, the family business,” who protects not only his family, but wants to save strangers from the things that go bump in the night, from the things they thought were only scary stories, but actually existed. Someone else should be able to retain their safety and innocence, and be protected, even if Dean can’t. At the end of Season 2, Dean sold his soul to save Sam’s life, and at the end of Season 3, he went to Hell, unable to escape the terms of the deal he’d made. Although during the course of Season 3, Dean went from a nihilistic attitude towards his fate to saying he believed he didn’t deserve to die and go to Hell, those old psychological wounds weren’t healed. He might’ve said it, but how much did he believe it?

And then in walks an angel, who tells Dean he’s “not here to perch on your shoulder,” but he proceeds to do just that, acting as the protector to someone who is used to being the one who watches over everyone else.

Here was Castiel, who as we found out in Season 8, always had “a crack in the chassis,” always had something different about him where he questioned the callousness angels showed towards humans, and chose to abstain from harming them even if he hadn’t (yet) taken drastic action. Castiel, the obedient soldier loyal to God, the absent father who abandoned his bickering family of jealous children. The fierce warrior who was mission driven, who thought he was doing the right thing, but he had doubts, questions he was ashamed of, things an angel had no business asking. Always a little bit of an oddball, always a bit of a rebel waiting to happen. Dean Winchester blew the lid off a lot of things simmering in Castiel, in part by the simple act of offering friendship. Dean immediately gives him the nickname “Cas,” thus reducing this all-powerful, uncanny remote being who confounds Dean. At the end of Season 4, Dean talks Cas into rebelling against Heaven for the sake of humanity. In so doing, Castiel consents to be hunted by his own kind, branded an outlaw. Like Dean, Castiel prides himself on being the good soldier, but it’s impossible to be only one thing, to carry those burdens without ever having a worldview shaken, without ever being vulnerable, no matter how much he wants to be the protector. Castiel, like Dean, sees his only value in being a soldier and a guardian, and like Dean, doubts what he has to offer beyond that. Just as Castiel shows us a different side of Dean, Dean shows us a different side of Castiel.

Castiel not only perched on Dean’s shoulder, he crossed a line so frowned upon among angels that he was demoted as garrison leader:

He cared.

When Castiel walked into that barn in the Season 4 premiere, when he leaned in and seemed to stare right into Dean’s soul and said “you don’t think you deserve to be saved,” that was it. I was helplessly gone. Before Supernatural started playing up the undercurrents, before many of the show’s creative and production team knew this pairing would become one of the most popular on the internet. That moment is powerful with or without “shipping goggles” on. For some reason, I started shipping it, and here we are.

I thought it would be a weird, small ship, and at first, that its main appeal for me would be a frenemies thing, two people forced to work together who don’t trust each other. Maybe Castiel would turn out to be a bad guy with a soft spot for this aggravating but likeable human. In some small respects, this isn’t far from what happened–Castiel has waded more than once into some questionable decisions, although like Sam and Dean, always with the ultimate goal of trying to do the right thing, whether it be protecting his family (in Castiel’s case, heavenly and earthly), or trying to save both Earth and Heaven.

No one told me they were going to sit on a park bench and Castiel, absolute warrior of the lord, would share doubts with Dean he hadn’t shared with anyone else. No one told me, when I started shipping it, how much their friendship would get to me, along with a sexual/romantic potential. No one told me it would make me cry this much, that as the seasons rolled onward, they’d look at each other with all the hurt and love in their eyes–“I was there, where were you?” No one told me Castiel would throw a holy molotov cocktail at an archangel, walking onto a battlefield despite having temporarily lost his powers, because of his faith in his friends and his wish to help save humanity. No one told me about their quiet moments of connection–Dean laughing “for the first time in a long time.” Dean teaching Cas how to pose as an FBI agent or offering Castiel painkillers because he had a hangover after drinking an entire liquor store because he’d finally lost all faith in his absent father. No one told me how Dean would start treating Castiel like part of his family, how much regard Castiel would grow to have for Dean. No one told me that a multi-dimension wavelength of celestial intent would sit in a classic ’67 Chevy with a deeply damaged hunter with a huge heart and find support and encouragement for his search for God. No one told me about Dean refusing to use his escape from Purgatory until he’d found Castiel who was lost there with him. No one told me about the betrayals, the fierce loyalty they would develop for each other, the trust issues, how much they’d hurt each other, or the love, define it however you will.

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How we got from Dean stabbing Castiel in the chest at their first meeting to “we’re family…we need you…I need you” is quite a story, and in season 9, we’re moving into the next phase of it. It’s quite a story whether it’s weird friendship with nothing else going on, or it’s weird friendship with heated undercurrents. Many of their moments of canon friendship read as just that, friendship. Others read as more of a mixture. At times the narrative has echoed romance tropes, earmarks or milestones where, if this were another couple on another TV show, it would almost certainly lead to them finally confessing their romantic feelings for each other. I can reel off a list of canon pairings Dean and Castiel remind me of, where the tension was exquisite and they finally got together after many seasons, and I can think of plenty of slash pairings I don’t see as more than just my playing around with the text for fun. Not that others won’t see more in those pairings, and some don’t see anything other than friendship for Dean and Cas, these things are to a certain extent subjective. I’ve had plenty of TV duos I’ve adored where I didn’t see it becoming romantic, no matter how much I dug that dynamic.

While Dean/Castiel as a ship has always been fun to play with, with each passing season it grows more difficult not to read the canon as two people repressing some confused feelings beyond war buddy friends-like-brothers. They’re a love story with perpetual interruptions, teetering on the edge of possibility.

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The surface text of an unusual bond between war buddies provides the backbone for the relationship, as well as water and light to Destiel as a popular pairing. Dean and Cas will always be one of my favorite fictional friendships ever, but it would also make perfect sense to me if Supernatural decides, overtly or subtly, to say outright that yeah they do have a thing for each other.

Their story plays right into Supernatural’s major themes–the connections to others, the struggle to do what’s right, loyalty, friendship, betrayal, trust, trying to figure out what your role is, the outsider, the screwed-up heroic misfits, family, love of different kinds.

At the core this duo is a complicated, fascinating banquet of emotional dynamics, wherever it leads.

Maybe Castiel will say yes the next time Dean asks him out for beer and cheeseburgers.

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11 thoughts on “Profound bonds and rebellious soldiers: shipping Dean and Castiel

    • They have so many earmarks of slow burn couples that have become canon, or even not-slow-burn, but many canon couples I’ve shipped in general. Either way, there is something unusual here and this duo pings with me so hard.

      Oh, I would be interested. As you can see from my archive here I don’t manage to blog that much, but I will definitely drop you an email!

  1. Literal actual perfection. “They’re a love story with perpetual interruptions, teetering on the edge of possibility.” < That line could be the best summary of their dynamic right now I've ever seen.

    • So glad you liked the essay! That hovering on the edge can be frustrating and has a troubling aspect–why do pairings like Dean/Cas have to remain only on the edge. But the edge is there, the possibility is there, whether it tumbles over or not, I wanted to convey what it is many fans see. There are accusations from non-shippers that Dean/Cas is entirely “fan created” but Dean/Cas is in fact a dialogue between the people who make the show and the fandom, by their own admission, and it’s gone both ways. We see it for a reason. And there are so many scenes where if they literally stood one inch closer, and if one small metaphorical shift happened, there’s a kiss or a touch always about to happen.

      Dean/Cas may not already is canon, but the possibilities are very very tangible and hinted at in the show and their on-screen chemistry is beautiful to watch.

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