Throughout S8, SPN explored duty, responsibility and mission. As a part of that, S8 looked at whether or not you have a choice about taking on a mission. That broadened out into an exploration of making choices in general. S8 examined consequences and sacrifices made if the mission is accepted or refused and who bears the cost. This led to another theme for S8, particularly the second half. If you've taken on a responsibility, can you step back and let it go? That also broadened out into a wider exploration of the act of letting go in general, whether it was physically or metaphorically letting go of a person, the mission, emotions or the life you wanted to be living.
None of these themes are new to SPN. As early as the Pilot, we've seen hunting treated as a job or vocation, a life to escape, and a revenge driven quest. As the seasons moved on, the discussion became more about destiny and free will, reaching a peak at the end of S5. In S6, there was a lot of focus on taking responsibility for the results of your actions, the personal consequences for doing so, and cleaning up any messes you made. S7 spent a lot of time dealing with the consequences of another supernatural screw up, the Leviathans, and in essence, it was a fight for survival all season long. What made the treatment of these themes different in S8 was that the characters specifically referred to responsibility, choices, and letting go in the dialog. For me, they were what helped keep the story flowing and held it together as a continuous arc. They stand out even more for me now in hindsight. I wanted to see if it really was there as much as I thought, so I went back through all the transcripts for S8 (thanks Superwiki and the folks who took the time to type them up) and I was able to pull example bits of dialog from every episode. It wasn't just Sam and Dean that grappled with all these themes. Victims, bystanders, and monsters-of-the-week all had to consider them and responded in a variety of ways.
The season started out focusing specifically on hunting as a calling or mission rather than just a reaction to tragedy and danger or the family business. Gradually through the season, the idea of mission expanded beyond hunting and other vocations started to enter into the discussion. Kevin's life as a prophet and the Men of Letters legacy were a couple of the ways the theme broadened. Right from the beginning, there was an exploration of how a responsibility or mission is given to or taken up by someone. Was it delivered by a bolt of lightning or an inheritance? Is it the realization that there is a need to be met? Is the family business a mission after all? Did you get handed the mission by a boss or some sort of superior up the food chain? Did you hit a dog? The dialog about responsibility starts right away.
Sam hit a dog and brought it into the vet clinic.
Sam: I did this.
And then later
Vet: Don't you think you're responsible?
Sam: Why do you think I brought him here?
Dean (about Kevin): He was our responsibility. [He tosses the phone at SAM’s chest.] And you couldn't answer the damn phone.
People are still talking about responsibility mid-season.
Aaron: He may be a pain in the ass, but he's my responsibility.
Aaron: My Grandfather left me something important. Something only I can do.
And at the end, the angels have started their own discussion about responsibility but they are using the term mission.
Castiel: Ion, how far can we let it all drop? This charge was left to us, it's our mission.
Ion: Do you even know what the mission was? They've been in all our heads.
Castiel: We aren't machines for them to reprogram. That wasn't what this was meant to be.
Ion: Nothing matters.
Castiel: You are so wrong, brother. It all matters.
Naomi: Our mission was to protect what God created. I don't know when we forgot that.
These comments seem to come along with the character's acknowledgement that there really is a responsibility or mission. Once that is clear, the exploration of choices really begins in earnest.
Dean: What the hell is this? Spear of Destiny?
Do you have a choice to carry out this mission or refuse it? Can you make this choice or is someone else making it for you? Are you being coerced? Although past seasons have dealt with making decisions under pressure, this season had a lot of characters making choices due to physical coercion. We had Crowley and Naomi torturing and using mind manipulation on angels, Kevin, future prophets and Meg. Death threats were made and carried out against Kevin's family and people previously rescued by Sam and Dean. Bobby's soul was used as a bargaining chip. Krissy's Dad and the families of two other teens were killed to push them into life as master hunters. The season arc for Kevin explored all these questions from the first episode to the last. Sam, who has to face a lot of the same questions as Kevin during the season, still lays the issue out in terms of free will, an idea we're familiar with from back in S5.
Sam (about Kevin): He got out.
Dean: Now he's in it whether he likes it or not.
Sam: So....free will, that's only for you?
Dean repeatedly delivers the truth as he sees it all season long. Given his experience, you can hardly blame him.
Dean: All right, listen to me. I'm sorry about your girlfriend, okay? I am. But the sooner you get this, the better. You're in it now, whether you like it or not. That means you do what you got to do. I'm hitting the head.
Dean to Kevin: No, like I told you before, this isn't going to end. Look man, other guys, they got it easy, you know? It's all backyard barbecues and bowling teams but you and me? We got to carry a little extra weight.
Dean: But you suck it up and you push through because that's what we do.
Kevin: And according to your own words this morning, this is not what I do. It's what I did. You told me I was out, Dean.
Dean: Yeah, well.
Kevin: And if this is going to be the "guys like us are never out" speech, save it.
Castiel: Dean's right. There is no out, only duty. You are a prophet of the Lord, always and forever....until the day you cease to exist and another prophet takes your place. Now are you clear as to the task set before you? Then do it, and let's go.
Most of the way through the season, Sam and Dean are still having this same discussion. That Sam can still even say something hopeful at this point says a lot about his resilience.
Dean: They're hunters now. You don't just walk away from that. There's only one way out of that, and you and I both know it ain't pretty.
Sam: Maybe they'll be different.
Dean: Or maybe if we shut that hell hole once and for and all, those three can have a real life.
Sam: Maybe they won't be the only ones.
If you only heard Dean's take on it, it would appear that there isn't a choice. You're in it, whatever it is, until your dead. Dean's just representing one way of looking at it though. The show also spent a fair amount of time letting other characters decide for themselves whether it's possible to choose not to carry out the mission. In the early part of the season, Sam had walked away from hunting for a year and hadn't intended to come back to it.
Sam: Look, it wasn't like I was... just oblivious. I mean, I read the paper every day. I saw the weird stories… the kind of stuff we used to chase.
Dean: And you said what? "Not my problem"?
Sam: Yes. And you know what? The world went on.
Dean: People died, Sam.
Sam: People will always die, Dean. Or maybe another hunter took care of it. I don't know, but the point is, for the first time, I realized that it wasn't only up to me to stop it.
Right away, we see Sam being aware that there is a cost to refusing the mission. Assuming you have the choice, are you aware of the consequences of your choice for both yourself and other people? What's the cost if you choose not to take on the mission and who pays it? What sacrifice do you make to keep on with the mission? Does the choice-maker have an accurate enough perception of the situation to make a fully informed decision? If the choice is really yours and you calculate the costs, will you choose to carry out the mission? Mrs. Tran has no idea what she's signed up for.
Dean: Kevin, you want to back us up here? Came all the way down here to pull her out of the fire, and now she wants to jump right back in.
Kevin: Like I can tell her what to do?
Plutus: It's not about the quantity, chief. It's about the sacrifice. This little lady's soul is the most valuable thing she has. It's everything. Are you willing to offer everything, Mr. Crowley?
Dean expresses the sacrifice mostly in terms of family.
Dean: Guys like us, we don't get a home. We don't get a family.
Sam: Well, maybe they're doing it right. Maybe they can hunt and have a real life.
Dean: You know that's not true.
Sam: Why, 'cause it didn't work for us?
Dean: Because it doesn't work for anybody.
Turns out even Dean has a point at which the costs are too great to stay with the mission. Maybe the question is more about which responsibility takes precedence and who decides that.
Henry: It's the price we pay for upholding great responsibility. We know that.
Dean: Your responsibility was to your family, not some glorified book club!
Henry: I was a legacy. I had no choice.
Dean: Yeah, you keep telling yourself that.
As the season progresses, we're not just talking about choices to hunt or translate tablets. The choice for some characters is about how they are going to live their lives, what relationships they'll keep, and sometimes, whether they want to survive. The same questions pertain here as they did to carrying out a mission. Do you get to make a choice or did someone make it for you? How much control do you really have over the direction your life will take? I think everybody has days where they wonder that. Benny sums it up in the first episode.
Benny on the phone with Dean: Mostly it's the choices, you know? So many choices.
Brian: I'm sick of being Piggy. I want to be Ralph.
Professor Wolfman: We don't get to choose who we are.
Brian (showing bite): I did.
Kate in voiceover at the end: I didn't choose this.
Andrea: You never hid anything from me, Benny. I chose you.
Benny's Maker: This is my story, you gnat. It ends the way I choose, not you.
(Benny ends it shortly after this.)
Dean: Besides, Benny, Kate....they were forced to be what they are. James chose this.
Portia (to James) : Standing by you is my duty, my choice.
Castiel: But she didn't choose to be a Nephillim, so she's innocent.
Nephilim: I just want to live my life.
Garth: A spectre is an avenging ghost. It uh, it possesses you and finds out whatever betrayals you're feeling and forces you to act on them.
Dean: Those weren't mistakes, Sam. Those were choices.
Ellie (about Crowley and her deal): He didn't make me do anything.
James: Tell me why.
Phillippe: I had no choice.
James: What does that mean?
Phillippe: My master made me.
The cupid from 8.23 was interesting to look at while thinking about choices. She doesn't give the guys a chance to choose their own love and she's acting on orders. In the end, she gives up her bow and by extension her hand and her ability to carry out her mission by her own choice.
Cas and Dean go back and forth about responsibility and choice when they talk about Purgatory.
Castiel: I ran away.
Dean: You ran away?
Castiel: I had to.
Castiel: Well, I didn't get killed. And it worked.
Dean: And if it didn't?
Castiel: It would have been my problem.
Dean: Well, that's not the way I see it.
Castiel: Hey, everything isn't your responsibility. Getting me out of Purgatory wasn't your responsibility.
Cas lets go of Dean's hand as the portal closes.
Castiel: See, it wasn't that I was weak. I was stronger than you. I pulled away. Nothing you could have done would have saved me, because I didn't want to be saved.
In the end, Cas isn't given a choice as to when to leave Purgatory because he's pulled out by angels and delivered to the tender care of Naomi.
There were quite a few points in the season where the choice is specifically laid out as question of whether or not you'll join the fight or pick a side. The same language is repeated several times through the season.
Benny: You're either in or your out.
Dean (later in the same discussion): Either you're in or you're out.
Dean: Sam, you with me?
Benny: Dean, this is my fight. Are you in or are you out?
Dean: Right. Okay, well, then, what the hell do we do now?
Sam: That depends. It depends on you. On whether or not you're done with him.
Dean: Well, honestly, I don't know.
Amelia to Sam: I can't have you with one foot in my life and one foot out there doing whatever it is you do.
Dean to Sam: Whatever you decide, decide. Both feet in or both feet out. Anything else will get you killed.
Dean: Listen, you can run and hide and die for all eternity. It's your choice. But Sam and I are gonna go after Zeus... with or without you.
Shane: I'm in.
Naomi: You have to choose, Castiel - us or them.
Metatron: You got to ask yourself what's more important, her life or your family?
Sam: Maybe this isn't one we can win. Maybe we should just take the deal.
Dean: We'll figure this out. We will. Man, we'll get it done. We'll kick it in the ass like we always do. Are you with me?
Sometimes making a decision is too much to take on at a given point in time. Some characters tried to escape making a choice by running or living in a dream world.
Castiel: Do you think Mr. Jones knows what's happening?
Dean: I don't know. Seems to me like the dude's living in a dream world.
Stan to Sam: This – it won't last. You are living in a dream world.
Sam: Eventually, whatever it is you're running from, it'll find you. It'll come along and it will punch you in the gut and then....then you got to wake up, because if you don't then trying to keep the dream alive will destroy you. It will destroy everything.
Gerry (Boltar) :There is no game! There is only Moondoor! I came here to be different, to get away from my crappy life...
Dean to Metatron: So you get a ruffle in your feathers and just decide to disappear? Go stick your head in the sand forever? You have no idea what's been going on out there.
Sometimes characters quit running.
Charlie: I'm tired of running. I like my life here. I'm gonna stay and fight for it.
Charlie: No more replacement characters for me. I got to face reality from now on.
Castiel: Then I'm not sure. But I know I can't run anymore.
Dean: And you didn't run?
Ellie: Where would I run?
Among all the choices being made, the season specifically addressed the choice of when to carry on with duty and responsibility and when to let it go. Is it possible to ever let it go and if yes, how? Like with the theme of mission and responsibility broadening to include all kinds of choices, the theme of letting go became about more than just duty. In addition to letting go of a responsibility or mission, letting go of an emotion, a dream or a person also came up over and over. It was addressed outright as the physical release of a grasped hand or the refusal to continue some sort of action and it also showed up in the guise of forgiveness or sacrifice. Is letting go a success or failure? It all depends on your perspective. There were different reasons for letting go. A big one seemed to be exhaustion.
Sam: Wait, this one looks recent. "Dearest Betsy... So tired of it all."
Mrs. Holmes: I am so tired. You can't imagine the burden of it all. I think even Brick was through. He could see the end of my days were at hand, and... He had lived centuries all alone, but I don't think he could bear the thought of life without me. That's why he drove off that bridge.
Portia to James: Tell me one day this will all be over.
Benny: Truth is, uh... I could use a break from all this.
Dean: It really been that tough?
Benny: I'm not a good fit, Dean. Not with vampires, for sure not with the humans. I don't belong.
Kevin: I just....I need this to be over.
Letting go in order to move on with grieving, acceptance or another person came up a lot with respect to letting people go. Mental health came up too.
Dean thinks he keeps seeing Cas.
Sam: If you let it, this is gonna keep messing with you. You got to walk past it.
Some people chose not to let go.
Josephine: Move on, but never forget.
Letting go came up as a topic between Dean and Charlie in both episodes they had together.
Dean to Charlie: But, trust me, this life - you can't afford attachments. You just got to .....let go.
Dean gives this advice while ironically being attached to Charlie. At this point in the season, Dean has cut ties with Benny as has Sam with Amelia but both are still alive and could be contacted again. By the time Dean meets up with Charlie again, he's just killed Benny to get Sam back from Purgatory so when he talks about letting go of someone to death, he's relating to Charlie from a place similar to what she's facing rather than talking about a relationship break-up. For Dean, this is advice he has a hard time taking himself.
Dean: We gotta find a way to break this loop.
Charlie: Ok, how?
Dean: I think the only way to stop this is to....not play.
Dean: I think the only way to break the cycle is to let go of the fear and stop playing the game. You're afraid of losing her. Charlie, she's already gone.
Charlie: I just want to tell her that I'm sorry......
Dean: I know. Believe me, I know. But you gotta let it go.
Dean: What's next for you?
Charlie: Gotta let go, right?
The episode also plays out with the knowledge that there is someone that Dean won't let go of and he's been willing to pay a pretty big price for it personally, sometimes at the expense of other people.
Charlie: What about you? You gonna let it go?
Which brings us to Sam, who started the season alone and grieving and gradually managed to make a life for himself that didn't include hunting. Then he had to make a choice between trying to keep that life and Amelia or staying with Dean and hunting. He picked life with Dean and for the beginning of the season, he remained pretty positive that there was a way to do the job and manage to survive it. Sam the-glass-is-half-full Winchester managed to maintain hope that there could be a good ending out there for them, especially with the closing the gates of Hell.
Sam to Dean: I want to live....and so should you.
For Sam at that point, his biggest choices are ahead. He chooses to be the one to carry out the trials. He manages to stay pretty upbeat about his own survival until we see that he's coughing up blood after the first trial. Then Prometheus (Shane) dies but not before he and Sam have a conversation.
Shane: Why are you doing this, Sam?
Sam: We need a bone, so I dig.
Shane: No, I mean for us. This isn't your problem. You're risking your life.
Sam: Why'd you risk yours to steal that fire?
Shane: Good question. Wish I could remember.
Sam: Trust me on this -- it was worth it. You pretty much, uh, saved the whole world.
Dean: You're not gonna die like Prometheus.
Sam: How do you know, Dean? Bobby, Rufus, now Prometheus. You think any of them chose death? No, the life chose for them.
By 8.17, he's regularly coughing up blood and he finally admits to Dean that he's not as confident as he was. He chooses to continue the trials. By the time they find Metatron and the final task, I think Sam has a pretty good idea of where these choices are going to lead him.
Sam: But we're heading somewhere. The end.
By the time Dean finds out that the trials are going to kill Sam, Sam has come around to the complete opposite position from where he was in the first episode. Then he had said, "People will always die, Dean. Or maybe another hunter took care of it. I don't know, but the point is, for the first time, I realized that it wasn't only up to me to stop it."
Now we've come down to Sam choosing self-sacrifice instead because, as he says:
Sam: Look at him. Look at him! Look how close we are! Other people will die if I don't finish this!
In the end, it comes down to a choice that only Sam can make. Finish the trials, die, and leave Dean behind in a world with a closed Hell gate or abandon the trials and live in a world with Dean, an open Hell gate and whatever physical damage he's done to himself in the course of the trials. In the end, we're back to the question we've been getting all season, do you continue the mission or can you let it go? What are the sacrifices and costs to be paid if you stand down?
Sam: How do I stop?
Dean: Just let it go.
Sam: I can't. It's in me, Dean. You don't know what this feels like.
Dean: Hey listen, we'll figure this out, OK? Just like we always do. Come on. Let it go, OK? Let it go, brother.
In asking Sam to let go, Dean lets go of his goal of closing the Hell gates. Sam's life is too much of a price to pay. By the time Sam also makes the choice to stand down, most of the rest of the usual suspects have also made big decisions. Meg has chosen to help Cas and sacrificed her life so he could escape. Cas has chosen to protect the angel tablet, spare Dean, and make a couple of really bad choices on the way to finally being duped and stripped of his grace by Metatron. (In a complete aside, that sounds a lot like Sam's S4 arc including killing an innocent character along the way.) Naomi realizes she's been wrong and gets killed by Metatron. Metatron doesn't give any of the angels a choice, he just causes them all to fall.
In the end, the show left it to Metatron to sum it all up. Given the Meta part of his name, I suppose it's only fair.
Dean: But, are you in? With us, I mean.
Metatron: You really intend on closing the doors of Hell?
Dean: Seems like the thing to do, don't it?
Metatron: It's your choice. And that's what this has all been about, the choices your kind make. But you're gonna have to weigh that choice. Ask yourself, what is it going to take to do this and what will the world be like after it's done.
Then Metatron quotes Samuel Johnson.
Metatron: Of the blessings set before you, make your choice and be content.
Characters made choices all through the season but it's hard to say anything about being content. This is SPN, afterall.
The best way to wrap it all up seems to be with the words from a couple of SPN season finales.
Up against good, evil, angels, devils, destiny, and God himself, they made their own choice. They chose family. And, well... isn't that kinda the whole point?
We've got work to do. Cue trunk slam and Season 9.
Caps from Home of the Nutty and me. Dialog from transcripts on the Superwiki.