There's an argument to be made that Castiel's discovery of free will was marked by his transition from the tool of the highest ranking angel in the room to the tool of the Winchesters. I'm not going to make it. Spoilers ensue.
Castiel has been tainted for the entire run of season eight. In Purgatory once he couldn't flee Dean any more, he reconciled lying to Dean with protecting him, and didn't break ranks until the last possible moment. Naomi seems to have taken advantage of many of his impulses—to seek what's familiar on Earth, the Winchester brothers, to seek others of his kind in peril, Samandriel, but has twisted him for her own purposes at the last moment. Now she's moving up to bigger and badder things—remote controlling Castiel from the get go—removing his free will, and shaping him into a tool to get the angel tablet into her own hands. And if you can make Castiel kill Dean Winchester, what can't you make him do?
Now we know what happened to the corpses from Mystery Spot: "How many Tuesdays did you have?" "I don't know. I lost count." Well, Castiel's beaten your numbers, Sammy boy.
Now we transition to a Dean who's clearly had too many life experiences since the cursed rabbit foot in Bad Day At Black Rock. Any respect and hesitation they showed in their father's storage room is gone out the window as Dean barely stops short of licking what he finds among "every object, scroll, spell ever collected for thousands of years under one roof"—and after a rare unguarded smile at Sam on the topic of masturbation, maybe he does lick the vintage porn once he's on his own.
But bigger things loom than Legacy Christmas—Sam does the world's worst job of consumption on the down-low, leaving evidence of his internal bleeding behind him, after convincing Dean that liquefied eyes are their call to action and a call to the Midwest.
They make short work of their first Illinois interview, determining that demon signs are at hand, as well as a very impressive city model-building and excavation hobby. I'm sure this won't come in useful later, nosirree.
Their second interview escalates very quickly, as we know it should, because we all go over the promos in slow motion, with a stopwatch in one hand and taking careful notes with the other. The world's most effusive stranger (I know they're cute, but why does everyone spill their guts so breathlessly?) is interrupted quickly by three demons and in the nick of time, an angel. Although Dean is later critical of Sam's ability to go mano a mano with the undead, I think it's perfectly reasonable to be rescued by a knight with shining hands.
Craftily, one of the demons possesses the housewife, and Naomi finds herself in a bit of jam with the demon trapped by Castiel and about to spill the dirt—Castiel's story of his missing time, hunting demons in search of a "demonic decoder ring" that will allow Crowley to read the tablet sans prophet, located in one of Lucifer's crypts isn't true enough to last fifteen minutes, and the worried Winchesters watch him stab the demon mid-torture.
Are smutton chops a thing? They should be a thing. Sam is kinda hot, but a little less manly, obviously, than last season.
Cas has clearly lost a step under mind control, because Sam and Dean almost catch up to him with the Impala as he flies ahead to find the demonic hostage that's spilling the locations of the crypts. Someone close to Lucifer. Did you see the previews? I saw the previews. But nothing so far in the episodes reveals why Crowley is so obsessed with hair-styling. First he chopped Kevin's hair in the time he had him captive, and now we find out that part of his inhumane torture of Meg included bleaching hers.
I'm one of those few people who's over Crowley, because to me it feels like they stack all the inconsistencies at Mark Sheppard's feet and tell him to go to town. Now, he's quite good at town-going—he does it a lot. But not many shows are interested in his range of town-going, mostly they want his creepily charismatic intensity to justify having his evil around for so long (thank you, Doctor Who, for mixing that up). So not only does he change the rack of torture that convinced Dean to become a monster himself into a QUEUE (like, seriously—where do evil British people go when they die? You can tell from Crowley's accent that he knows they're invulnerable to lining up.), but now he's pre-occupied by cosmetology. Thanks a bunch for that canon, really. The half-second where self-interest plausibly trumped sheer evil worked for me, but too soon they were just using any justification they could find for him not to kill our heroes, and for our heroes to avoid killing him.
But it's good to have Meg back, even if they're meta-textually insulting Rachel Miner's fashion decisions. She's been around for longer than just about anyone else *and* she was no _more_ dead at any of those points than any other, which is pretty revolutionary.
Crowley's not the only demon for whom they had to mess with evil—Meg is a bit all over the map, but at least her motivation to stay alive and stay ahead of the other bad guys calls for a wide range of choices, even riding with the boys.
Oh, hey—the 3D map comes in useful, as Meg tells them truth about Lucifer's crypt *and* the angel tablet that's the target of the quest, as opposed to the half lies she's been feeding Crowley's goons this whole time.
While Sam excuses Castiel's lies about his motive to a pissed off Dean, Meg and Cas have such a touching flirt that even Dean gives his approval of Megstiel, and Cas finally doesn't flee when someone suggests sex with him. Dean would be, you know, proud, if he wouldn't be horrified—Castiel can see Meg's true demon face, but he accepts her solicitation sweetly anyway.
Crowley shows us he has his demon-killing pants on by offing the one remaining minion-demon, for basically being irritating, which also isn't evidence of being evil. I'm not the king of Hell, and I totally do that all the time myself.
Crypt located, the Winchesters demonstrate how much Family Guy (uh, King Of The Kill is just in my head) they've watched by synchronously shutting up Meg, and everyone gets their protectiveness on—Dean insists Sam stay out of the fray because he's coughing up blood, so he stays topside with Meg, who's being protected by her beau, Cas, because she'd been tortured for a year. They're both so noble...
Castiel changes the topic by freaking the shit out of Dean by calling Sam's damage "subatomic" and beyond his capacity to fix. And that's not even Naomi talking—she hasn't been controlling him for at least the past ten minutes.
Sam and Meg, in their frailties, bond as they ward the location over their respective lost loves, and since Sam's noggin is Toyland for demons, and everyone's had their time in there, but Meg was there first. She knows him well...she teases the (awkward) story of Amelia out of him, and we find out that leaving her didn't convince him that stopping was impossible—it convinced him it could be done. Which means Dean wasn't thorough enough. He'll need to have another go at that at the end of this season.
Dean and Cas find the tablet, with Dean breaking into the warded box to grab the goodies. And this is where the emotion goes through the roof—Cas tries take the tablet and leave, and Dean is stressing that the tablet needs to go to Kevin, in the world's least subtle "negotiation" of tactics. Dean's not actually clear about why his team needs the angel tablet—the demon tablet has a clear immediate use—to lock the bad guys up. Wanting the angel tablet could be for the simple joy of knowledge that Dean's *so* keen on, or maybe he just likes all the WMDs and doesn't trust anyone at all. Maybe.
Naomi plays a card too far, and falls into the same trap many have made—trying to force the body of someone who loves Dean to kill him. But as long as Dean values his life far less than everyone else on his side does, this is a flawed plan. He fights back nominally and then takes yet another beating from a loved one (this scene's staging is directly reminiscent of Swan Song, but remember that John regained control over his demon possession to protect Dean, as did Bobby momentarily—Dean's just too pretty to kill). The thousand times Castiel killed Dean in simulation doesn't matter—as he starts to beat Dean's face in, he blurts Naomi's name. "Cas, it's me. We're family. We need you. I need you." In the end, he chooses family long enough to stop beating Dean, and to break free of Naomi's control at the touch of the angel tablet, disappearing from her white room as she yells into the emptiness. He heals a frightened Dean and confesses the full tale of Naomi's control, but he takes the tablet away from them both, and disappears from the crypt too.
Meanwhile, Meg has bonded further with Sam, revealing that she's fallen for "someone" a bit herself, but this kind of heart to heart only spells...Crowley. Meg sends Sam to safety, and sacrifices her life, bleeding for the Winchesters in as much redemption as a demon should get. She manages an off centre stab to Crowley's shoulder, and he dispatches her with relative ease as the Winchesters jump into the Impala and speed away—since Castiel's not with them, and presumably also not the tablet, he chooses posing in the streetlight over chasing them and trying to extract any information or manipulate the situation—instead he goes back underground where he has a chat with Naomi—confusingly discussing their special time in Mesopotamia, which does seem to predate Fergus McCleod's deal with Hell and loss of his soul for three more inches of dick (uh, his dick—don't be filthy) which we've been told is how Crowley got into Hell and the crossroads business in the first place.
Dean has his weekly "Don't lie to me, Sam, my job is to protect you" speech, but since he we all know he's referencing the Lord Of The Rings this time, it's way more poignant. "It's the Rudy hobbit. The Rudy hobbit always gets a pass." Yes, Dean. We've forgotten that you wanted to drop the Horsemen's rings off in Mount Doom. Why would we think you were into swords and sorcery? Geek.
Cas decides to get on his way without Angel Express and takes a bus instead to the plaintive lyrics of Supertramp—I can only guess that this travel will be easier to hide from the seething Naomi—she's still pretending to Crowley that Castiel's on mission, but it's a thin veneer and he doesn't buy it. Her rant at Cas as he wrested back control of his own mind was quite revealing—he wasn't only the expedient choice for what she needed to accomplish—she's (justifiably...) mad at him for the devastation he wrought on Heaven and its residents, and to be fair, her "fix" lasted longer than their last attempt in season 4 to get him back in their ranks—but took a lot of hands on manipulation.
Dean's the embodiment of free will, guys. It's clear that neither Heaven nor Hell is really into risk management or worst case scenarios. Just breathing in his manly musk makes the best laid schemes gang agley. Aft. For all Crowley's much-vaunted concern with the "denim-wrapped nightmares" he's only ahead of the game by staying unkilled.
Five more episodes, two more trials, one and a half more tablets to go. Although we have a pretty clear bad guy or two (I like to think of Naomi as misguided. And heartless. Heartless and misguided, but the hole where her heart would go is in the right place.) for the season, we don't have a clear objective, other than "read moar." It remains to be seen if Castiel's throwaway comment that it *could* kill him to read a book pays off.
But if Dean wants to find Castiel now—why does he want him? To save Sam? To get the angel tablet and hang onto it in case? Or because he's family, and he needs him? He's been very task oriented in the past—Castiel has been a help to him, and in Purgatory he was a big mission. It would be nice if he just wanted him back for beer. Or pizza. Whatever.
And the next episode seems to avoid dancing around the "creepy kid" trope and go straight to "kids who are going to fuck your shit up." Which is my favourite type of kid—I wasted so much time as a child...