Saturday, December 8, 2012

Sounding Off on 'Supernatural' Season 8 So Far (Through "Citizen Fang")...

I was asked to participate in TV Overmind's mid-season roundtable about Supernatural for the second season in a row. The discussion prompted so many thoughts that obviously they all couldn't make TV Overmind's final, edited, post. I decided to print my full review here, checking in with Supernatural season eight so far to see how Jeremy Carver is doing as new showrunner and what storylines give me the most hope, or just cause general excitement, for the rest of the season to come...
I was really concerned from the moment we left Dean (Jensen Ackles) in those woods at the end of season seven of Supernatural. Dean had already been to Hell and back, literally, and how could anything he experienced later, no matter where he experienced it, be worse? His body and spirit were crushed in Hell; he turned into something he never thought he'd be there; at one point he was told he had no soul because of it (not literally, but you know). I was afraid Purgatory would be lackluster, or worse, repetitive, but I think what sold me on Dean's Purgatory experience was the fact that this time the show actually allowed us to see it and therefore experience it with the character. 

Hell was a lost chapter for Dean, for the show, for the fans. Our minds could fill in images of what it must have looked like for Dean to be taken off the rack and start torturing, but we were thrown into the trenches with Dean (and to a degree, Castiel and Benny) in Purgatory. The flashbacks were shot with such a frantic style, between quick cuts and jittery frames, they never let you get comfortable. You felt like you were being watched and that you could be attacked at any angle. It was equal parts beautiful and haunting and absolutely terrifying-- in the shooting style but also in the storytelling in general.

In Purgatory, Dean had to slice whatever came at him without even pausing to figure out what the "thing" was. This, more than the specific setting, was what proved Dean was truly out of his element down there. This broke the typical pattern of hunting, as taught to Dean by his dear old dad. This was much more a free-for-all where there should only be one victor standing, Hunger Games style, and those conditions cannot be compared to anything else.

We've seen Dean drink too much in the past, unable to cope with the little changes, and honestly, I hoped the show would do more with the PTSD of Purgatory because of just how unique and dark Dean's situation was there. There was a nice moment in the season premiere where he's zoned out, trying to make sense of something so mundane (but formerly loved) as junk food and in a split second, he switches to completely on edge as he hears two kids playing with toy guns. I was hoping for more of those moments that snapped him in and out of Purgatory in his mind. At the very least, he should have been sleeping with at least one hand on one weapon at all times! 

Somehow, though, none of that caused much controversy. The part of Supernatural season eight that did, though, even within myself, was the fact that in Sam's (Jared Padalecki) "lost year" he went off the hunting grid and lived a normal life. Now, much earlier in the season I wrote a piece about how Sam trying to find normal was the best way that Jeremy Carver, when taking the reigns of a show from which he had taken a mini break, could have proven he was keeping the characters true to who they always were. I still believe that is true.

Sam, from the moment we met him in the pilot, just wanted to be normal. He didn't know then that the reasons he could never be normal went way beyond the way his father raised him to the blood that was actually coursing through his veins, but his attitude and behavior made sense for both scenarios. Anyone who grows up feeling different and being uncomfortable with it is going to try to rebel against it and hope they can have something better. You can say the grass is always greener, or you can say Team Free Will, but Sam has always taken any chance he could get to grab some "apple pie life" for as long as he could.

The thing about an "apple pie life," though, is that it is boring. It is certainly not the experience I signed up for with Supernatural. So the minute I saw Sam's initial flashbacks to learn he was living with a girl, I felt like I had seen all I needed to of his particular flashbacks. I understood immediately what it meant for him to find that, proven only temporary once again, and to choose to walk away from it. In the premiere it certainly seemed like he chose to walk away from it because of his brother, though more recent episodes have unnecessarily complicated his situation by implying he walked away earlier, to be a "good guy" when Amelia's ex came back in the picture. In all honesty, I don't care much about Sam's past; I care much more about his future.

From the start of the season it was abundantly clear just how little Sam wanted to be on the road again, hunting, but he resigned himself to do it because it was his job. He put the greater good ahead of his own personal feelings. That is certainly admirable, but it is also tragic in a much different way than Dean is tragic.

Sam has always managed to cling to a little bit of hope, usually wrapped up in a relationship, that he can have a regular life when this is all over, but by now there should be no logical reason to believe this will ever be over. Perhaps hope, like faith, should defy logic, but at a certain point it can just make you crazy-- where you're so desperate to believe something you project your hopes onto someone else, just to try to make them tangible. I have this sinking feeling that is what Sam did with Amelia-- that he projected the relationship, and the life, he wanted to have with her, and therefore his memories of his time with her are skewed. Not unlike how he used to dream of Jess in the beginning, now Sam may be using Amelia as the image that gets him through the tough times, the stuff he doesn't want to be doing, to give him hope, even if not concrete proof, that he can have everything he wants someday.

I just don't personally know why it had to be Amelia (Liane Balaban). In all honesty, part of why I have been bored by Sam's flashbacks are because I just find Amelia dull. Does she remind anyone else of a poor man's Michaela Watkins? She had a spark in the beginning-- when she was yelling at him in the vet's office-- but then she was just sad. And sure, it fit the story that Sam would connect with her because they were both grieving, but even people who have experienced loss aren't morose all of the time-- especially if they find someone who is actually helping them grieve. Amelia just seems muted, especially when compared with the other dynamic women of Sam's past (even if they weren't always good for him). The way she is, I still find myself saying "Why her?" which is probably also why I keep expecting the other shoe to drop and to find out that Sam's memories of her aren't true memories. After all, it is when you don't know someone super well that your image of them is pretty generic. And Amelia, after nine episodes, is still pretty generic.

I've been really newly enthusiastic about Supernatural this season thanks to what I've seen so far and the vision Carver seems to be exhibiting for the season overall, though. Any time a show switches showrunners in the middle of its run, regardless of how well the showrunner knows the show, there is usually an adjustment period. For a show this late in the run, it can't afford an adjustment period, and Carver understood that and didn't waste time easing anyone in. He started the season at high-speed, and he has been able to hold the momentum for the majority of the first half of the season (I'd argue that "Bitten" was a detour we didn't need, despite how stylistically fun it may have been).

It is clear that Carver not only has a point of view, but he also has a plan, and it is paying off a little at a time, from the beginning. That shouldn't be such a fresh breath of air; that should be the norm. But too often in television, even in recent Supernatural seasons' past, that wasn't the case, and things seemed to be not merely tweaked as they went but fully made up as they went. There are repercussions for that: that shows on-screen. And similarly, it shows on-screen when every event has a reason and an effect. We may not know exactly how it will pay off in the end yet, but the mere fact that I'm formulating theories means the show has made us think and care anew. 

For example: for as much as I love Misha Collins, I would have been okay with Supernatural closing his chapter by leaving Castiel locked up in the mental ward after taking on Sam's psychotic break. Castiel needed to atone, and let's be honest, I've never been a fan of "reset buttons" or false stops on this show. But season seven didn't want to leave Castiel there, and so I'm at least glad season eight has worked hard to restore his character.

Leaving Dean alone in Purgatory seemed like a bitch move on top of everything else he had done. Learning this season he did it because he felt he was protecting Dean certainly didn't make Dean feel better, but it did ease my concerns about his character. Castiel is like a teenager: emotionally stunted, completely impressionable, easily lead by peer pressure, and unfortunately right now, being completely manipulated by the mean girls. In high school I once wrote a paper about organized religion basically being a high school clique, and what I see Castiel going through reminds me of that now. For as fun as he can be with his deadpan delivery and confused one-liners, he is being set up for major heartbreak by Naomi. 

Castiel is basically Cady in Mean Girls right now. He is the (relatively) new kid who just wants to fit in and play nice with everyone to repent for the wrongs he caused in the past. But he is basically playing both sides, without even realizing it. Cady was naive; Castiel is just being manipulated by an angel worse than Regina George.

We know so little about Amanda Tapping's Naomi (we have never even seen her without Castiel) that at this point, it's hard to really speculate what her end game is. On one hand, I feel like she may be a rogue angel, but on the other hand, just because her office is pristine doesn't mean the angels, after all they've been through, are still as "pure" and clean as they're supposed to be. Maybe she knows what's on the tablets and just wants to keep tabs on who else gets the information; maybe she needs the Winchesters to get Kevin Tran (Osric Chau) to tell them so she has it for the first time. 

(It's a fascinating concept that there could be a gospel out there that teaches someone how to banish every evil creature from our world, isn't it? I mean, isn't one of the toughest parts of religion to wrap one's head around the fact that if there's a God, He shouldn't allow evil in the world? But in the world of Supernatural, if such a thing exists, and if Dean and Sam get their hands on it and do the job, then what? The show would have to end, and not with a bang but with a whimper. Dean and Sam would grow old, twiddling their thumbs. They'd go off in different directions, surely drift apart without hunting to keep them together, and the memory of their strong bond would fade. That's no way to treat such legends! So I have a hard time getting too excited about this search for the tablets, kind of just assuming it can't end well-- whether it ends this season, in two, or in ten more.)

Maybe she's being manipulated by someone, and she's turning around and manipulating Castiel to help her own situation. I honestly could see this going a few different ways at this point.

And similarly, I could have seen it going both ways for Benny (Ty Olsson).

Benny, poor Benny; oh how I love Benny! Let me count the ways! It is so rare for a show in its second season, let alone its eighth, to rely so heavily on just two characters, but when a show has done just that for as long as this show has, introductions to new characters can feel false and forced. Benny has been anything but.

We have seen vampires attempt to live without feeding on Supernatural before, and we have seen the Winchesters struggle over their personal feelings and relationships complicating what should be just another kill. What makes Benny so dynamic, though, is he, too, is struggling with all of these things. It's a testament to Olsson as an actor, how much conflict he can show just on his face, but it's also a testament to Carver and his writers that they're challenging ideas of purity in character and setting at this point in the story-- when you think you know everything about the world.

As a vampire Benny is anything but a pure character, but no one in the Supernatural world doesn't have blood on their hands, and therefore no one is pure. If only the pure deserved to live, well, there'd be no world, let alone show. However, Benny felt that Purgatory was a pure place, and this was a fascinating concept. Sure, it was a brutal battleground, but the rules were clear: you killed or you were killed. Topside, there are laws and politics and complicated emotions.

Dean has spent time in other worlds of sorts, most notably in "What is and Never Should Be," and he has had that moment of "wanting to stay" even though he knew it wasn't reality-- he knew there was a whole world out there waiting for him to come back and continue to save people. Of course, I've already talked about Sam's quest for a normal life. Benny's defeat in being unable to adjust was his way of catching up to what the Winchesters already know: there is no home; there are no ties; this world is lonely and cruel. The audience has been so used to that-- perhaps a bit desensitized to it, perhaps even embracing such darkness and damage at this point, identifying with the Winchesters-- that Benny has been a different kind of purity. He was someone new in the world who I wanted so desperately to hold out hope for-- that he wouldn't give into his nature, that he wouldn't betray Dean, that he wouldn't be beaten down by being topside.

But of course I also love Benny because of his relationship with Dean. Dean has never been a character who wants to go at anything alone. Way back when, he came to find Sam to help him find their father. Sam was always more comfortable doing his own thing; Dean thrived when he had family, or at least a partner to have his back, like a soldier. Watching Dean push aside his initial distrust and forge a very real, very deep bond with Benny speaks to both of their characters. Neither just used each other, but both brought out the best in each other.

Maybe because I had this surrogate in Benny, I probably didn't think nearly as much about Sam not looking for Dean at the start of the season as a lot of other people did, or perhaps even as much as Dean did. I kind of chalked it up to Sam being completely at a loss-- he may have wanted to look for Dean, but he didn't know where to begin (at least when Dean was in Hell, Sam knew where to find him, even if he couldn't get himself there or get his brother out). However, I fully expected that fact to stew with Dean for quite some time and cause a lot of tension and blow-ups. And it did. To a degree. But Dean seemed more upset that Sam gave up the life than that he gave up on him (that, too, seemed to fit Dean's character-- after all, he's had low self-esteem and the belief that he's not worth saving before).

If Dean couldn't be around to hunt, then he wanted his baby brother to fill in where he left off. Even after all of this time, Dean still wants the same things just the way his brother still wants the same things, and they still don't see eye to eye. If this were real life, I'd tell them to get the hell out of each other's lives because bitterness and resentment at each others' differences only causes more problems. But this isn't real life; it's a show that wouldn't exist without these two, so I'll always take arguing Dean and Sam over separated Dean and Sam any day.

Which is a good attitude to have, I think, going into the next batch of episodes. Dean didn't take out Benny, and Amelia has shown back up to muddy Sam's feelings. The two are going to be more on edge with each other than ever before, and any old conflict which they pushed aside (they never truly solved it; with differences of opinion as great as theirs, they'll only ever come to impasses) is going to be magnified 10x.

Going back to the tablets, though, anything that had to immediately follow Lucifer as a "big bad" had an unfair disadvantage. What could possibly be worse than the devil himself-- especially when the devil himself had such a deep, personal connection to one of our heroes? The Leviathans were an unknown, and sure, they were scary, but they never (in my opinion) seemed all that much worse than the other things Dean and Sam had battled for years. I had a hard time, to the end, wrapping my head around that they were "it" for the season.

With the tablets, it doesn't seem like there is an "it" at all but rather a "they"-- a ton of possibilities for where the story can go, how much the tablets themselves can impact the future, and perhaps how much they have impacted the past until now. The show is best when it is tying the overall mythology into a personal one for Dean and Sam, so I'm most interested to see what they may learn about themselves and their own histories from the search for the tablets.

Additionally, I have long believed Crowley (Mark Sheppard) doesn't get enough screen or story time. If he's the King of Hell, he's pretty damn important and therefore should be treated as such. That is really, finally, coming into play with this search for the tablets, and I love that so much more than the Leviathans.

Usually with Supernatural, I love nothing more than to see the Winchesters cross paths with people from their past because the interactions never fail to pick up immediately where they left off, regardless of the insane sh*t they've been through since. But this season didn't let them get away with it. Kevin and Garth (DJ Qualls), specifically, both have grown and matured so much in their time away from Sam and Dean. In a way it was heartwarming to see that life could go on without Sam and Dean-- both were out of the hunting game for the year, but their friends were okay. They may have been better than okay. 

Garth was always good for a comedic break, but watching him step into Bobby's (Jim Beaver) shoes was perfection. The entire hunter community-- and the Supernatural audience by extension-- lost a major asset when Bobby died, but Garth didn't let that community fall apart. Bobby taught Garth to be a man more than he did Dean or Sam.

Kevin, on the other hand, had to take his cues from the Winchesters. After learning he was a prophet and going on the run from Crowley, every booby trap he set was reminiscent of Kevin McAlister in Home Alone: they were equally brilliant and the best a kid could do.

And Mama Tran? Lauren Tom infused her with such a bad-ass spirit, I kind of wish she could become the new Ellen and set up some kind of home base for hunters to hang out and strategize and knock sense into those making dumb mistakes.

I have no doubt we'll see Bobby again at some point in the second half of the season, but I just hope that when we do, it's in an organic, emotional way that doesn't disrespect his spirit further. It was tough to watch him turn into a vengeful ghost last season; he deserves a little moment of victory. But mostly, it's just: if you're going to bring him back, there needs to be a real reason other than to toy with fans' emotions.

With the confrontation of Sam by Amelia at the very end of "Citizen Fang," though, I am most excited to see his Sam make his choice again when the season returns. If life with Amelia was what he has been pining for-- and why he only reluctantly got dragged back into hunting with his brother-- then something pretty big has to happen to not only keep him with his brother now, even though he's mad about the whole Benny situation, but make him want to stay with his brother. Again, my theory is that his relationship with Amelia, in reality, was never as domestic and serious as he chooses to remember it, and by being forced to confront that, he realizes his true relationship is his brother and fully embraces that again. But we'll see come January.

I'm also really excited about the introduction of the Winchesters' paternal grandfather. We know a lot about Mary's side of the family and how it related not only to the boys' destiny but also how they relate to each other and their individual senses of family. It was a shock for Dean to realize his mother was the hunter first-- the bad-ass and the babe-- and I have no doubt we'll be learning some new things about John that might challenge the way Dean and Sam think about him.

I also want to point out that I am generally someone who rallies against one-off episodes when a series is as deep into a mythology as Supernatural is, but I love what Carver did with the so-called one-off of "Hunteri Heroici." It was a case of the week, for sure, but the alternate reality certainly, thematically, played into the issue of what the angels are doing, so it was not an episode you could lift right out without consequences. And why would you want to life it out anyway? Those cartoon deaths were some of the most fun the show seemed to have, and it actually allowed the show to tap into a style and effects they never have in eight years.

Supernatural has always been creative, and it has always been ambitious, but season eight thus far has been combining the best of both of those worlds.

1 comment:

bjxmas said...

Awesome analysis! I love Jeremy Carver, love Supernatural and always expect great things from both of them. I have not been disappointed and I too am looking forward to whatever twists and turns the back half of S8 brings.

Benny and Cas were both brilliant additions to the cast and help expand the world of the Winchesters. I love how Sam and Dean are fundamentally the same guys they were in S1 except for all the major changes they've endured as hunters. The more they are tested and the more they are revealed only makes them infinitely more intriguing. I've never been witness to a show that is still going this strong eight years in. Kripke laid the foundation and his team of creative writers and brilliant actors have built on it ever since.