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Over the course of seasons 4 and 5, Sam and Dean learned at least two ways that Lucifer's cage in Hell could be opened:

  • Lilith freed Lucifer by breaking 66 Seals.
  • Sam and Dean opened it up and put Lucifer back in using the rings of the Four Horsemen.

Additionally, at the start of Season 6, Castiel, or someone acting on his behalf, went into the cage and got Sam's body back out. (Death also got in and out, but as of Season 11 he's not around anymore).

And yet, in Season 11, they spend almost an entire episode trying to figure out how to open the cage, and neither Sam, nor Dean, nor Crowley seem to know how to do it. At no point do they try to ask Castiel how he got in and out without setting Lucifer free, either.

Was it ever explained why none of the previously successful methods of entering Lucifer's cage were available to them anymore?

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They can't use those methods anymore...

As mentioned in the question, we've previously seen two methods of opening the Cage, but neither of them are viable anymore:

  • The Seals Although there are a total of 600+ seals, only 66 of which needed to be broken to open the Cage, at least the first and last appear to be fixed. The first, that "a righteous man spill blood in hell", doesn't seem terribly difficult to replicate; it's the last, Lilith's death, that's the stickler:

    Ruby: And it is written that the first demon shall be the last seal.

    Supernatural Season 4 Episode 11: "Lucifer Rising"

    Since Sam already killed Lilith, using the seals is out of the question

  • The Horseman's Rings. Although Sam and Dean have three of the Rings buried in Bobby's yard, it seems exceedingly likely that Death's ring was destroyed along with his scythe when Dean killed him in the season 10 finale

...But they wouldn't be helpful anyway

Even if the other methods were still viable, they present a major risk: Lucifer himself. Neither method guarantees the two things the Brothers want out of the meeting:

  1. They can talk to Lucifer without him killing either of them
  2. Lucifer can't escape and restart the Apocalypse

This is really the bigger problem; dialogue from the episode suggests that they're not worried about getting into the Cage, but rather how to safely meet with Lucifer outside the Cage:

Dean: Can Sam meet with Lucifer or not?

Sam: In the Cage.

Dean: No, not in the Cage. That’s not going to happen.

Sam: Okay, then I don’t meet with Lucifer. Dean, we can’t let him out.

Dean: [notices a look on Crowley's face] What?

Crowley: There may be a way. Clearly, if Sam enters the Cage he’s gone. And yes, it’s on my bucket list, now is not the time to be selfish. Need a secure site, a way to neutralise Lucifer’s powers.

Supernatural Season 11 Episode 9: "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?"

The Angelic Elephant in the room

At this point we have to mention how Castiel broke in to retrieve Sam's body. We don't know how he did it. At all. No clue. The production staff seem content to leave that question unanswered for the moment, and nobody on the show has made a big deal about it.

Without knowing more about how he did it, we can't say anything conclusive about why the Brothers didn't try it. It's just a plot hole that seems to have been swept under the rug and then forgotten about.

  • IIRC, Lilith only needed to break 66 out of 666 possible seals to open the cage; shouldn't there be 600 more options? – KutuluMike Jan 23 '16 at 2:35
  • @MikeEdenfield Yes, but as I recall the first and last seals were fixed. If Lilith could have broken any of the other seals to free Lucifer, why would she have picked the one that ended with her death? – Jason Baker Jan 23 '16 at 2:37
  • that does sound familiar.. – KutuluMike Jan 23 '16 at 2:56

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