Castiel, Sam and Dean’s parental relationship to Jack came to an emotional climax this season in Byzantium. It was a testament to the show that in little more than a season, we have come to care so much about this nougat loving Nephilim.
Jack’s introduction to Supernatural was a move that could’ve had “Cousin Oliver” written all it. Or should I say “Adam Milligan” – since Kripke teased the introduction of a younger hot Winchester in an episode he called “Jump the Shark”!
But aside from the writing and Alex Calvert’s performance giving us a great new character, it’s also allowed a new lens to be held up to the Show’s continued exploration of “family that doesn’t end with blood” as we observe these two humans and an angel raising a half human/half angel “child”.
The people who raise us and care for us in our formative years make us the people we are. For good and bad, they are the major influence on the people we grow to be. Sam, Dean and Castiel all have experienced absent or wanting parental figures.
In the early seasons, the Winchester brothers’ reunion leads them both to re-examine their childhood and their relationship with their father and each other, and in fact their own sense of self. This continues after John’s death – our relationship with our parents doesn’t cease when they die - and we see Sam and Dean continue to deal with the impact of John on their lives for many years.
The boys’ relationship with Mary is almost the reverse of that with John, in that after having only a memory to relate to all these years, they do get a chance have a relationship with her present when she is resurrected by Amara. Sam gets to know her, and Dean gets to own his anger towards her and forgive her. Still it has proved a challenge for each of them. In a very real way Mary is not the mother they lost, and they are not the children. They’ve had to find out what this unique familial (and yet unfamiliar) relationship looks like for them.
ETA: Since I started writing this, we’ve had the announcement that JDM will return as John Winchester (in some form) in the 300th episode. I saw some fans hoping that Dean and Sam would get a chance to express their anger over how he treated them (a few were hoping they would punch him!). But I think that view ignores that in the 12 years since his death, the boys’ perspective on John, their internal relationship with him, and of course their own experiences put them in a very different place. While there may still be anger, I think it would be tempered with understanding, maybe an appreciation of what he did teach them and hell the fact that he kept them alive. Maybe, as Dean did with Mary, they may get to forgive him.
Castiel’s situation is parallel though wholly unique. If God counts as his father, then Cas never knew him – in a way he is like someone who was institutionalised his whole existence. He formed bonds with fellow angels, but the ways he was used and brutalised by heaven limited those. It was only through his connection with the Winchesters that this orphan really began to know what family is, and more importantly have the space to really work out who he is as well.
These three men with their absent and lacking parents have each bought something different to their relationships with Jack, and in turn I think Jack has given them something back that they needed.
Castiel’s bond started with Kelly and his refusal to kill her despite his fears of what he then saw as the “abomination” she was carrying. I am sure some of Cas’ protection of Kelly comes from his guilt over having taken Jimmy Novak from his family and the devastating impact he knows that had on Amelia and Claire Novak.
Then there was the connection between Cas and Jack before he was born. I think that the vision Jack showed Cas of a peaceful future, was become somehow it was what he sensed that Cas wanted. (Whether Jack has the power to bring that about remains to be seen).
After he is born, Castiel finds in Jack someone who is uniquely like him – an angelic being who knows what it is to love and care about people, at the same time as feeling separate from them. Who wonders if they can fit in, who wonders what their purpose is. That connection only deepens when Jack loses his powers, as Castiel has also.
In sacrificing himself for the return of Jack’s soul, Castiel does what none in Heaven have done for him, put him before their own needs.
Sam and Jack give each other unconditional acceptance. Sam felt like an outsider in his family. I think he felt shut out from the grief bond that John and Dean shared over the death of Mary, whom he never knew. And while their intentions were good, their desire to protect him also further excluded him. Sam didn’t feel accepted as Sam the hunter, or as Sam the good student.
Like Jack, Sam also had evil in his blood, something he only found out as an adult, but something he thinks he sensed subconsciously as a child. This shared experience allows Sam to accept Jack and reassure him that our paths, and who we are, are not pre-determined and that he will be there to support him.
Dean has always been good with kid, he connects with them and speaks openly to them, and we saw something of Dean as a parent in his time with Lisa and Ben. (Dean did of course have a de facto parental role with Sam, when he was only a child himself). With Jack, Dean starts out both angry at and fearful of Jack, because he sees Jack only as a monster. His father’s mission of “saving people; hunting things” is deeply ingrained.
But as Sam points out to Jack, for Dean a person’s actions are what matters to him and after Jack makes the effort to find out that Mary is still alive in the AU, a hope Dean had abandoned, his attitude to Jack changes. We see Dean come to love Jack, and to give him the validation that he never felt from his father. Jack looks up to dean, idolises him even, reflect that validation back to him. As Dean takes Jack out for his adventure, he teaches him to drive in a scene that mimics the dream Dean told Sam about in “Baby” – of a normal happy experience with his Dad. And then Jack recreates a happy memory of Dean fishing with his dad. Its notable that when Dean suggest they got to a bar to hook-up and Jack demurs, Dean doesn’t force him – he lets Jack be Jack. Dean is okay with Jack being himself, being different from Dean, in a way John never was.
In different ways, Cas, Dean and Sam all give to Jack and get from Jack something they need themselves. It speaks to how each of them has grown that they do this in a healthy way, not acting out the dysfunctional parenting they themselves received, not hungrily seeking what was lacking. Their motivation is to give to Jack, rather than take, and in return they do get something they need.
And Jack gets three awesome, loving fathers.