1. Character Arcs: Regression and CircuityWhat can I say, I'm a fan. Character regression? I'm in.
This was inspired by a post over at spn_heavymeta, though ultimately not directly related to its conclusions. Though the actual point of this sentence is different than what I wanted to comment on here, the aforelinked post says: I dislike story cycles that stagnates character growth (and even depends on regression and lack of growth)...
While I don't think the argument that this kind of cycle holds mass potential for becoming tired and rutted, I don't think that character regression is in itself the root cause. I don't want to pre-emptively invalidate my point by quoting Frou Frou, but there's beauty in the breakdown. Character regression is one of the bravest things a television program (or storytellers in general) can do, because
1. It frustrates the audience. All that work is supposed to add up to something. You're not supposed to go through seasons of emotional strife, only to end back up at Square-fucking-One! It's like climbing a mountain for the view, and finding that there's a big cloud (of angst) in the way and you can't see anything. But as I'm sure anyone can attest, if you've ever had a self-impovement mission, or a relationship with kinks to work out, the first epiphany, or the first Way Out often isn't the permanent solution.
It can be extremely gratifying to see characters come to some conclusion about how to fix themselves, and try their hardest to realize that conclusion. It can be just as gratifying to see them fail--either because their circumstances change, or their actions fail to effect the appropriate ends.
And the thing about cycles is, no one forgets those failures. Maybe they serve as warnings against what should be done the next time around; maybe they serve as crippling stays against future action, or future growth. For good or ill, the one thing these interim experiences can ensure is that Square One the second (third, fourth, fifth) time around bears little resemblance to Square One, Attempt #1.
2. It often makes the characters involved somewhat unlikable. Because if you're not getting 'better' chances are you're worse. And chances are that makes you kind of an ass. XP
For the sake of argument, we're going to make the assumption here--which, it's important to note, not all people hold--that someone's 'best' is defined here as their ability to act as a self-actualizing body who exercises his agency without infringing upon the agency of others (potentially to the benefit of others, in addition to the self).
Sam: Had no soul. Though as evinced in 6x11 "Appointment in Samarra" even soulless!Sam had begun to develop a sense of personhood, not having a soul makes it kind of hard to grow emotionally. Of course the bigger issue here is Sam-after. We see Sam vacillate between wanting very badly to figure out what he did and atone/'grow past' and just kind of leaving it alone. In 6x22 "The Man Who Knew Too Much" Sam chooses the former. This is probably a shining character moment because it exemplifies the reclamation of the self, um, pretty much as literally as you can possibly get. XP But it also spells trouble for Sam's future agency, because what are you supposed to do with all that Hell?
Castiel: Was definitely acting on his own opinions, that's for sure. XD Perhaps misguided, perhaps short-sighted. Definitely in discordance with his explorations with 'freedom' in S4 and S5. Although he is now acting on his own perceptions, his final declarations in 6x22 essentially rule out anyone else's free will as non-objects. I don't know about you, but that kind of regression and/or mis-application of lessons learned is intensely appealing to me! Especially given that when he calls the Winchesters (and especially Dean) on their behavior, he's kind of, uh. Totally right. He's totally right and at the same time totally wrong and it is glorious.
Dean: Part of what terrified me about 5x22 (outside of the thought of Sam in a hole D;) was the idea that Dean would have to live without him. I just thought--ever-faithful person that I am--"He can't do that!" Like, physically can't. Turns out he can, after a fashion. You know. But Sam's reappearance forestalls whatever development those circumstances would have fostered. What they are faced with instead is the problem of a Sam that is not Sam. Perhaps the severity of this stems of Dean's history of having very clear ideas of what Sam should and should not be, but 60/40 Dean treats soulless!Sam like shit. Whatever faith he found in Sam at the end of S5 dissipates in the face of Sam without a soul--Dean calls the shots. He resents and mistrusts the thing pretending to be his brother. He also resents and mistrusts himself (end of 6x06, the Veritas episode), which proves a dark combination (again, the end of 6x06; torture by electrocution in 6x07 "Family Matters"; his implication that bringing Sam back the first time [2x22 "All Hell Breaks Loose"] was one of his worst mistakes in 6x10 "Caged Heat"; general atmosphere of rape and torture in 6x10 though that's not entirely on Dean, obviously).
With Sam off being soulless, there's nothing to keep him in check, both in terms of his outside actions as well as his interactions with soulless!Sam. Which is interesting because now not only is Dean in charge, he's in charge with a conscious lack of regard for Sam's emotions/freedoms (the former of which, okay, soulless!Sam purportedly doesn't have). Again, a dark combination.
And this is going to sound really dumb but I don't remember the second half of S6 at all (as opposed to my hazy recollections of the first half, pfft) so I'll stop here and just say 'and then Sam gets his soul back and Dean recovers himself as well, and then Castiel happens and Dean falls back on angsty totalitarianism again. Rinse and repeat.
2. Blame, Forgiveness, Wrong-DoingAnother post on spn_heavymeta discussed Sam's arc in S4, and Castiel's in S6--their parallels, etc. But also the issue of 'forgiveness'. Specifically why is it eaiser to forgive Castiel and not Sam? Should Dean forgive Castiel? Why?
Again, this is off the point of the original meta, so I didn't think it was appropriate to include in the discussion over there. But here's my take on the issue: The central point here isn't who deserves forgiveness, or who should get it. It's sticky because the act of bestowing forgiveness seems to imply the existence of a moral pedestal from which forgiveness can be given; some character who's been wronged and has done no wrong, has been victimized without victimizing, etc. I'd be hard-pressed to find that in any of the main cast in Show.
I think a lot of fandom (and, to be fair, a lot of Show's narrative) places Dean in this role, because he's the one whose brother betrayed him/whose angel betrayed him. It seems to follow that part of kissing and making up would involve him forgiving their various transgressions. But at the time time... It's as I've mentioned above. In either situation Dean's response (not to mention his role in creating the environment that led up to anyone else's actions) was just as damaging as, if not more damaging than, the original act. [spoilers for S6: Castiel points this out in 6x22 (though there is some dark irony in that, immediately thereafter he places himself on the pedestal of all pedestals, likely renewing the vicious cycle/drama of misguidance all over again).]
In any case, I think we're pretty past who should give and who should receive exoneration. Forgiveness implies a unidirectional gesture that has little place in the tangled mess we're in now! And we are quite the hot, tangled mess. XP