This review will most certainly be short. My apologizes.
I am of split mind on “The Man Who Would Be King.” This is an episode that has a lot of work to do, both in explaining the season leading up to it and setting up the two episodes that will follow it. And it of course still has to be an enjoyable episode in its own right. For the most part, I think “King” meets all those requirements. This is most definitely one of the season’s best episodes and it goes a long way in trying to make sense of some of the issues I’ve had with season six as a whole. However, I’m not really sure any one episode could make some of the odd writing choices better, even an episode penned and directed by the great Ben Edlund.
In the least, “The Man Who Would Be King” does a lot of heavy lifting in contextualizing what the hell Castiel has been off doing this season. Fans and critics have been complaining about Cas’ lack of screentime all season and I have to imagine that those folks were very happy with how this episode unfolded. Edlund’s directorial choice to have Cas basically speak directly at the audience was a really nice touch that added some personality and humanity to the proceedings. After the last few episodes, fans were disappointed in Castiel and this episode is basically all about him finally coming clean with all the things he’s been doing when Sam, Dean, Bobby and us have been distracted with other problems. It also tries to show us how Castiel has actually been responsible for so many of the terrible things that have happened this season, from Eve’s rising to Sam’s lack of soul when he returned from the pit. This is, without a doubt, Misha Collins’ best performance on the series. Even in the flashbacks, we can tell that Castiel is completely lost and unsure of himself in the moments after Sam and Dean prevented the apocalypse. His love for the Winchesters and Bobby shines through in so many of these scenes, even when he’s making decisions that he knows they will hate.
Moreover, I just loved how this episode felt so well into the series’ overall thematic concerns. Castiel is not that different from Sam and Dean. He started on a very specific mission from his father that he thought he had to carry out, but he’s slowly realizing that his father isn’t as involved or caring as he thought. Without that guidance, Castiel made some questionable decisions that he now has to deal with. Like Sam and Dean have so many times, Cas thought he was making the tough choice that would help the largest number of people. His decisions here are sort of like Sam’s in season four: Totally justified in theory, totally awful in execution. Which I guess makes it super-fitting that Dean reacted in the way that he did here. I think he took it easier on Castiel than he did Sam, but the feeling of betrayal were still all over Dean’s face by the end of this episode. Dean is the most idealistic of the group and his morals have never wavered, which is tough to live up to, no matter if you’re his human brother or an angel.
Despite the high-quality of this episode, I’m still not sure it makes up for some of this season’s biggest problems. Obviously, Supernatural doesn’t have the budget to back up the kind of stories it wants to tell and even this episode’s journey into heaven didn’t actually involve any of the civil warring that Castiel has been ranting about all season. At this point, I can forgive that. But explaining away the rapid story arcs with Crowley and Eve and maybe even Sam’s soul as all Cas-related doesn’t completely work for me. I understand that he did have a major role in all of those events, but some of the execution of those stories were so rough that this almost feels like a slight retcon in the aftermath. I’m not saying the writers just randomly came up with this story idea in the room, but the weaker parts of the season make it feel that way. I’d like to believe that Sera Gamble and her team had Cas’ influence in mind all season, but I can’t completely forgive them for how rushed or how quickly dropped certain plot threads were handled this season. Castiel didn’t make Samuel a mostly worthless character. He didn’t introduce and kill Eve within something like four episodes. And he didn’t tell Sam that he could just forget about the wall in his head. This is a tremendous episode, but tremendous episodes don’t fix season-long problems.