This is one of those episodes that seems to be self-contained, only to take a very different turn by the end of the hour. It is also a perfect follow-up to the issues raised in the previous episode. Matters are coming to a head, and while it's hard to watch, it's precisely where the story has always promised to go.
At the end of the previous episode, Dean and Castiel had lost all remaining hope. Dean had been hanging by a thread for months, and Castiel had put all of his faith in finding God and convincing him to end the apocalypse. With no conceivable way out of the trap of fate, with no apparent way to save the world, Dean's resolve had to falter.
The entire confrontation with the Whore of Babylon is designed to hit Dean where it hurts the most. The whole discussion on Paradise, the notion of the "chosen", even just the glimmer of hope in the eyes of the faithful-all of it twists the knife that is already gutting Dean with each and every tick of the clock. Dean has already come to the conclusion that he has to concede to his apparent destiny; this situation just confirms that there is no hope left.
As much as Dean fights to save the people of the town, the efforts feel hollow. He sees those with the best of intentions and hopes of salvation being led down the path to their own destruction. Having learned that God is allowing the apocalypse to unfold without intervention, the effect of the Whore of Babylon is even more devastating.
Some will take the actions of the faithful in this episode as a thinly-veiled insult against Christians. They will also be the ones missing the point. Whether it's the Four Horsemen, the Whore, or any of the other creatures out of Revelation, all of them have been using the exact same methodology: taking human weakness and twisting it. The Whore of Babylon, as depicted here, would certainly want to take the hopes and piety of the faithful and twist it to hellish purpose.
And frankly, there are examples throughout history of the faithful turning on people, even friends and family, out of a desire to do God's work. I'm somewhat surprised that the Salem witch trials weren't referenced in this episode; if there is a touchstone moment in American culture for religious hysteria gone horribly wrong, that would be it. If an apparent prophet is saying "kill your neighbor to achieve salvation" in the middle of the apocalypse, I wager a lot of avowed Christians would take up arms. It's less about criticism of religion than it is a commentary on how trust and faith can be manipulated by those with evil intent.
But what does that say to Dean, who really needed to see that humanity might have a chance? It tells him that there is no way to avoid his fate. Sam may be willing to keep struggling along, but he was the only one left with any shred of hope at the end of the previous episode. Dean's decision was all over his face, and his conversation with Lisa was just a matter of finding some small sense of closure. (And a nice bit of continuity as well.)
So it appears that Dean is going to give in to Michael. Unfortunately, it just doesn't seem that simple, does it? After all, there are five more episodes to go. If this were the penultimate episode, it might have been easier to accept that the Brothers Winchester were rushing headlong into the big dance. But there's way too much time left, and that's a clear signal that something more is in the works.
This once again brings to mind the notion that God, while clearly not getting directly involved in the resolution to the problem, has been well aware of the situation and had already planned for all these eventualities. God knew that the angels would effectively go bad and that Lucifer would rise, and he knew that the Brothers Winchester would be seen as the ones to bring the battle between Michael and Lucifer to reality.
And that also suggests that whatever else is coming was also foreseen. His message to Sam and Dean may have been less a denial of assistance than a call for patience. From a certain perspective, Sam and Dean were intending to tell God to work on their timetable. If God has it covered, what kind of answer would he give? Pretty much the one he gave.
This also takes into account the notion that God's true plan requires this kind of capitulation by Dean. If there is some kind of twist coming involving Dean and Michael, and it is enough to change the nature of the situation in some fundamental way, then it could be exactly the sort of thing that would fit into the "God only told the angels the part of the plan he wanted them to hear" scenario.
Of course, that's the one problem with the "deus ex machina" plot device. Everything that happens, no matter how questionable in terms of logic, can eventually be explained as part of a shadowy, inexplicable plan. When done well, the seams don't show too much and the audience doesn't feel cheated. But taken too far, it can feel like the writers' way of excusing a lack of forethought.
That said, while this season has been a bit of a step backwards in terms of cohesiveness and overall plot progression, it is still strong enough in the end to bolster my faith that Kripke and company are still working to their own plan.