Happy Holidays Supernatural fans. Just before the good tides arrive I come bearing gifts: the last gripes of 2013, for the season so far.
Some told me it’s unfair that Supernatural is the only show that gets these reviews. I’ve been asked a few times why I write them, or why I won’t stop watching the show when I have so many problems with it. This might be a good place to answer those questions.
Why would I still watch a show I think has so many issues? Simple, because I love the actors and the characters they portray. I also love the earlier seasons. My problem is with the current crop of writers. I think none of them are qualified for their jobs, and if I were the show runner, I would fire the whole lot of them. That may sound harsh but it is what this show needs to get back to its previous quality level. In my eyes, right now, there isn't one writer on the staff who understands Supernatural the way he or she should. And it frustrates me that the characters I love and care about so much are in the hands of amateurs.
The other thing people keep telling me is to read fanfiction if I don't like the show. I find that suggestion bizarre. Not liking bad writing in the official medium doesn't mean I should turn to bad writing in unofficial mediums. I'm not saying all fanfiction is badly written, just that I usually have a hard time finding any good ones. In all the time I spent in the SPN fandom I've only read one truly good fanfic (Named by McLachland.) And fanfiction won’t give me the actors on screen,which as I said is one of my reasons for watching the show.
But enough about me. Let’s talk about Season 9 and all that went sideways. I've divided this review into three categories: Characters, Relationships and The Show. Furthermore, instead of listing all the individual problems that appeared during the season’s first half, I focused on subject matters that the gripes collectively emphasized on. These mostly centered around what the characters did during the season and how they affected the main story arcs.
One of the most important tenets of storytelling is that all your major characters must have a purpose on stage, a goal they aspire to or a reason they would stick around in the story. If you have a character without an objective you should write him or her out to avoid wasting space. One of the great qualities of the earlier seasons of Supernatural was that every character, major or secondary, followed this rule, and even though some of their goals changed from season to season, they always had one.
With that in mind let’s talk about the three main characters of Season 9.
When it came to Sam in Season 9 one question fans kept asking was “Where is Sam?” Most complained that, aside from the dream sequence in the first episode, the bit with Crowley and Kevin, and some random cases, Sam was largely absent from the season.
That however isn’t strictly true. Sam hasn't so much been absent from the season as he’s been absent from its main arcs. He has been there doing random things and influencing minor plots, but beyond being a receptacle for another player of the main storyline, and Dean’s motive for pretty much everything, he has had no effect on the mythology.
Referring to the intro to this segment the question shouldn’t be “Where is Sam?” but rather “Why is Sam (on the show?)” or more accurately “What is Sam’s purpose/goal on the show?”
The only answer I could think of comes from the season premier, when we watched Sam talk to made-up characters in his head. Based on what he told his version of Death we know he wants one thing: to die.
Does anyone accept that as a goal for one of the major characters of a show? Maybe yes if there was enough rationale behind it, like being so guilt ridden, lost, depressed or beaten that one would become suicidal. And you may argue that Sam is at that stage due to his experience with the trials, but what about the scene in the church at the end of Sacrifice, where Dean desperately pulled Sam from the edge of the abyss? I don’t know about anyone else but to me that meant Sam’s impromptu flirtation with suicide was effectively over. I thought the brothers turned a page there and even though they didn't succeed in closing the gates of hell, at least they succeeded in keeping each other alive and interested in staying that way. So how come all that went away in Season 9?
This has been an ongoing problem with Sam’s character after Season 5. He either has no goal, or his goal is something the audience doesn't approve of (like dying, keeping his soul in hell, etc.) In fact Sam’s impoverishment on Supernatural (and this somewhat dates back to Kripke's era) is that most of the times he doesn't “have” a goal, he “is” the goal.
Which brings us to the damsel-in-distress nature of his character, and the second complaint fans have about his writing. There’s always something wrong with Sam, or he is always in some kind of peril. Be it possession, illness, being targeted by villains, or plain human troubles like addiction, Sam’s purpose is to provide other characters (primarily Dean) with a goal. This means the audience hardly gets to know Sam himself, and build an emotional connection with him. Most of the affection viewers feel for him comes from the trickledown effect from Dean. In that sense Sam is like those princesses in fairy tales who are trapped in towers or put to sleep by an evil spell. We don’t know them, we only know they are important and loved because the hero says so.
Everything I said about Season 9 Sam applies to Season 9 Castiel with one notable difference: he is not the princess. Unlike Sam who is the topic of everyone’s conversation most of the time - even though he himself is barely allowed to weigh in on any subjects because he is usually unwell – Castiel hasn’t been on any other protagonist’s radar for a while. And this season not even the antagonists want him on their team. Aside from several angels targeting him for different reasons (which fluctuates based on who wrote the episode) he has had no purpose on the show this season so far.
This aspect of Season 9 (along with its social/moral issues) is what mostly turned me off from it. I have been a Castiel fan since Season 6 because to me, he had the most fascinating story of all. Ever since he fell and started his quest for redemption he provided me with the highest level of entertainment on Supernatural. Granted it hadn’t always been quality story telling (how did he survive all those deaths and who the heck was Daphne?) but it was consistent, and gave Castiel a clear goal in seeking redemption. That all disappeared in Season 9.
When Castiel turned human at the end of Season 8 I felt excited and thought a new chapter of his journey had begun. I wondered how he would deal with the new disaster he unintentionally caused, how it would affect him mentally, emotionally and psychologically. How would a human Castiel deal with the overwhelming emotions, temptations and struggles humans faced every day? Those were questions I mostly wanted answers to.
Did we get any of those answers? I’d say no. Instead the writers filled his story with physical humor of the lowest level, like discovery of bodily functions. They also made a circus of him exploring the nature of sex and went so far they overstepped the line of decency into misogyny and rape jokes.
What saddens me most about Castiel is the excuse writers kept giving in the previous seasons, about why he couldn’t be more onscreen and had to constantly be depower, vilified or stupefied. According to them it was hard to write Castiel as a powerful ally without having him be a walking, talking Deus Ex Machina. Yet this season, with Castiel’s powers non-existent, nothing changed. They still kept him off screen, and didn’t let him be a part of the main story arc even though that story was about fallen angels. Instead they turned him into Irrelevant Steve whose presence or absence didn’t matter. The only function he had was to vouch for Ezekiel, the new walking, talking Deus Ex Machina on the show, and, I suppose, to be comic relief.
I left Dean for last because, surprisingly, he was spoiled the least. Unlike the other two his character did have a goal to pursue. Problem was, it was the same goal he pursued since the dawn of time.
If you spent more than a few months in the fandom, and talked to more than a few fans, you’d would know that “give Dean a storyline,” was the rally cry of a major section of Dean fans. Fans were upset that Dean never seemed to be the center of the plot, never got to do anything important, and was essentially stuck in a supporting role. Never has that been more exaggerated than the end of Season 8, with Sam doing the trials on his own and Dean demoted to spoon feeding him.
In Season 9 the writers decided to change the status quo. They set out to give Dean a more active role in the same vain they did with Castiel in Season 6, by orchestrating his downfall. Problem is, while Castiel’s motives in Season 6 for going to the dark side were complicated, and a blend of character traits and flaws, Dean’s are still the same song and dance he did since Season 1: keeping Sam safe. Even though this singularity of incentive has been called a trademark of the show, it has made Dean’s character one note and uninventive. He never surprises you. You always know what he’d do.
In a way Dean’s problem is the opposite of Sam and Castiel’s. While their goals and motivations fluctuated from season to season, sometimes from episode to episode depending on what the plot mandated, Dean’s has been stuck in the same circle for nearly a decade, running round and round and returning to the same spot.
Some fans argue that it is the heart of the show. It’s why you should watch Supernatural. It’s cute and we all should love it. Unfortunately it really stopped being cute this season, when they tinged it with Dean’s gravitation toward darkness by taking away his brother’s agency and kicking out his best friend. Another devastating effect Season 9 had on this aspect of Dean’s character was taking away Dean’s moral compass when it came to his love for his brother, which I’m going to elaborate on in the Sam and Dean section.
Bottom line about Dean: when fans said they wanted him to have a storyline, I doubt they meant more of the same but with added lies, secrets, snubbing of other allies and endangering people’s lives. They meant Dean being an important player in the main arc. Dean still doesn’t matter to anyone on the show. In a way he is still spoon feeding Sam, only now he’s not telling him what’s in the formula.
The Stupid Bug
I made a special section for this because it was one of the most incessant plagues of Season 9 that infected all three characters.
Watching the season, I constantly felt like reminding the writers that Sam went to Stanford on a full scholarship. There was no way he wouldn’t notice something was off with him. Even someone with half his IQ would have realized the missing times and disappearing wounds, not to mention dead people coming to life. The way he accepted every lie Dean told him – and Dean is a bad liar, I can tell you that – and dropped his suspicions of him was as if he intentionally played dumb.
Dean was infected with this bug too and I talked about it in detail in the last review. A shady angel comes along and possesses his brother and the only credibility he has is Castiel telling Dean he is a good soldier. Yet when the same angel – who in the beginning claimed to be Castiel’s ally – turns against Castiel Dean doesn’t question him, he follows all his whims like a happy puppy. Some people told me it was because Dean was afraid for Sam, that his love for his brother blinded him and prevented him from taking the risk. I’d say precisely because of that he should’ve been more careful, maybe done some investigation on Sam’s passenger on the side. People do thorough background checks on people they want to rent their apartments to. Dean let an angel live inside his brother and his only reference was the word of a friend whom he didn’t even share the secret with.
Speaking of Castiel, I don’t even know where to begin on his affliction with the stupid bug. Even though he always struggled with the intricacies of human life the idiocy of it was cranked up to eleven this season. It was as if a chunk of his brain left his body with his grace.
Allow me to elaborate on the difference between stupidity and cultural confusion. You could be a genius but get culturally confused when you go to a new place with unfamiliar customs. I always thought that was the case with Castiel since he was a millennia old creature who had observed humanity since it crawled out of the ocean as a fish. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility for him not to know how to leave a voicemail or how to interpret porn. Eating toothpaste and trying to turn on an unplugged TV however is sheer stupidity. And what’s worse, it was used randomly for comedic effect.
Let me make it very clear to the writers right here. None of the fans I talked to, or read from, found this stuff funny. Cultural confusion is funny because it preserves the character's dignity and could happen to all of us. Mental struggle or simple incompetence on the job (such as fumbling with a slushy machine) is not funny. At best you get frustrated with the character's silliness, at worst you feel uncomfortable about the ableism it implies. It’s been years since viewers found someone slipping on a banana peel laugh-out-loud material. The way it is applied to Castiel only makes viewers roll their eyes and think of him, and your writing of him, as pointless and annoying.
Sam and Dean (the Brotherly Bond)
This was the relationship that made me a fan of the show. Beyond the emotional appeal of two brothers willing to die for each other, there was an element of speculation and thrill about their story. Since the two of them were charged with saving the world, they were constantly put at crossroads (sometimes literally.) And the audience wondered: would they choose each other, or their duty to the family business? That aspect made the show infinitely intriguing because sometimes, just like the brothers, the audience didn't know the answer either.
Of course that all changed in the later seasons. Post Season 5 show runners took this genius idea of a plot churner, stripped it of all its intrigue, and reduced it to its barest skeletal form: the idea that Dean would do anything for Sam.
Suddenly there seemed to be no question about what Dean would do at crossroads. Whether he would choose duty or his brother was no longer a point of speculation. The show runners put him on autopilot and programmed him to always choose Sam. And thus Dean, who refused to kill a virgin in Jus in Bello, refused to give up Anna in Heaven and Hell, and agreed to not stop Sam from sacrificing himself in Swan Song, suddenly began to ignore the integrity of any action that was required for the upkeep of his brother. This was demonstrated in Season 8 with Sam having issues with Benny and Dean practically abandoning the mild mannered, melancholy vampire to please his brother. Also when it turned out Sam had to die in order to close the gates of hell Dean went out of his way to stop him, making all their efforts throughout the second half of Season 8 worthless and their chance to forever stop demons from wreaking havoc in the human world void.
It all came to a terrible head in Season 9 when Dean’s efforts to once again “save Sam” resulted in wounding not only others but Sam himself. By tricking his brother into accepting an angel to inhabit his body Dean did the ultimate questionable deed. The debate now is whether or not this storyline is supposed to lead to a dialogue about the sanity and virtue of the codependency and how far it should stretch, or if it will be brushed under the carpet without resolution by the arrival of yet another shiny new storyline, much like it happened in Season 8 with the stories of Benny and Amelia.
How does Sam feel about the brotherly bond? My honest answer is I don’t know. We don’t get enough insight into Sam’s mind to understand whether he would do the same for Dean or not. Many “Brothers” fans would say “Yes,” and scorn you for doubting his love. But there’s the ugly fact that Sam left Dean in Purgatory, and with the uneven way he has been written since Season 6, it’s a valid reservation to have about his character.
Dean and Castiel (the Profound Bond)
After my enthusiasm for the Sam and Dean relationship cooled down in Season 6, and along with my rising interest in Castiel’s redemption story, this became my favorite relationship on the show. For all the missteps post Kripke show runners committed, they did a decent job establishing a heart breaking and volatile relationship between these two.
The greatness of the Cas/Dean relationship was the fact that they each came from completely different backgrounds. It was fascinating to watch this old, celestial soldier of God, with immense power and reach, make this feeble human the center of his world. After Castiel’s fall and his subsequent quest for atonement Dean became a major player in his story. He became a sort of barometer for him to assess his level of forgiveness. Making Dean forgive him became Castiel’s goal. It was a spectacle to watch these two dance around each other and try to climb the mountain of issues that stood between them.
If I were to name only one pro for Season 8 it would be the way it further developed and expanded this relationship. With the addition of Dean’s guilt over leaving Castiel is purgatory, and Castiel’s manipulation by Naomi, the coils of their friendship became more twisted, causing many fans to wonder where it was ultimately heading and how it would finally be resolved.
Then came Season 9 and something changed. I still don’t know what but when Dean and Castiel reunited it was as if everything between them had disappeared. Castiel no longer seemed to care about Dean’s approval, or his own quest for redemption. His major preoccupations were blending in with the humans around him and having as much sex as his brief appearances made possible.
And Dean, he became cruel, for no reason and in completely baffling ways. From throwing Castiel out of the bunker without money, alternative options, or even the barest of explanations, to mocking his honest attempts at making a living, it seemed the writers were on a mission to show how much Dean didn’t care for his friend, and how much that friend didn’t care for him.
But worse than all of that was the fact that all the history between them seemed to have vanished. No mention of Purgatory, no talk of heaven, Castiel’s loss, Dean’s struggle to forgive him, their final work together to finish Castiel’s second trial, which ended in his and the rest of heaven’s downfall…it all seemed to have been wiped away, replaced by tasteless jokes about non-consensual sex and pointless talks about the case of the week.
There’s a theory out there that this was done intentionally, to deconstruct the romantic undertones of their relationship after so many fans demanded it to become canon. I personally don’t think that is the case, unless Carver is a homophobe or has some kind of vendetta against his fans, neither of which I think is true. To me, like what happened to the brotherly bond, it is more a case of losing sight of what makes people love the show and simplifying complicated, emotionally layered storylines to their most boring, basic aspects. Or perhaps it’s because writing the show at the level it once was is too challenging for the current crop of writers.
Again going back to seasons 1-5, one of the aspects of Supernatural that made it stand above the rest of the scifi/fantasy shows was its season long plots. Each season’s storyline was so straightforward it could be described in one short sentence. Season1: Find dad. Season 2: Find and kill YED. Season 3: Save Dean from going to hell.
This changed in Season 6. I’m not sure anyone could come up with a description of what the plots of seasons 6-8 were about without having to write up at least a paragraph. Season 9 is no exception.
Another thing about the earlier seasons was that no matter what the main conflict was, Sam and Dean were at the center of it. Even when the end of the wold was nearing it was up to Sam and Dean to determine whether it happened or not. This involvement of the heroes is crucial in keeping the audience invested in the conflict because, in this show that is filled with otherworldly creatures, our heroes represent humanity and are the reasons we care about the story in the first place.
Now let’s look at Season 9. What are the plotlines of this season and where do Sam and Dean fit in? There’s the heavenly battle between three factions of angels: Metatron, Bartholomew and Malachi. There’s the rivalry between Crowley and Abaddon to see who would rule hell. And there’s Castiel’s human story.
Sam and Dean play no major roles in any of these storylines.
It’s true they are involved in them. They are tied to the angel war through Ezekiel/Gadreel’s possession of Sam, to the demon war by holding Crowley captive, and occasionally to Castiel when his path crosses with them. But as characters who are the faces of the show their existence barely matters in the grand scheme of each conflict. You could remove them and all sides could go on with their plans without a hitch (except Gadreel would need a new suit.)
This is not a simple matter. When your heroes take a backseat in your show’s main arcs you are doing something wrong. Your audience watches the conflicts to root for those heroes and their side. If they find them holed up in a bunker having adventures with Dorothy of Oz instead, while the war wages outside without them, they lose interest in that war and feel no attachment to it.
Personally I don’t know why I should care about the heavenly skirmish. Neither of the sides involved represents humanity, nor affects it in any way. Unlike the apocalypse which would’ve razed the human world to the ground ala Terminator 2: Judgment Day, or the unleashing of the Purgatory souls which brought down the Leviathans, heaven’s gates opening or closing and who’d become its ruler won’t change anything for Sam and Dean. The only thing that slightly matters is if Gadreel runs off with Sam. But, considering what I said in the Sam and Dean section, that will likely not happen because Dean won’t let it, so there is really nothing keeping me at the edge of my seat regarding the fallen angles.
As for Crowley and Abaddon, we’ve seen so little of them I’m not sure what is happening. The only thing I can do is wait and hope they give us more information later.
And my only comment on Castiel’s story is that if I wanted to watch a patchwork documentary about a guy trying to survive on the streets I would have watched A&E, and made sure I screwed up my DVR settings so I’d miss all the important parts about how he got a job at a gas station and how he went from being a clerk to impersonating an FBI agent.
I was initially hesitant to add this section to this review, mainly because I thought I already covered everything about it in the previous articles. However some fans believed proper emphasis had not been given to this topic and that it deserved another mention. I agreed because, yes, rape jokes and misogyny aren’t on the same level as continuity errors and canon violations. They deserve to be held up and thrust in the writers’ faces so they see and understand why you should never include them in scripts.
A lot of fans were upset about the treatment of April. What upset them was not so much the fact that she was possessed by a reaper and used for sex and murder, but the way the boys handled it. Twice the topic came up and, each time, we saw neither remorse nor horror. Instead we heard them joke about the incident, picture April’s dead body naked, and high-five Castiel for finally losing his virginity. Perhaps the show has a mission to slather hetero-masculinity all over itself since, as Kripke once said, “It’s always two dudes on the road” which might turn one’s thoughts to homosexuality, but that doesn’t mean its beloved characters must act like inconsiderate bastards. There is a time for sex jokes and funny innuendo and a time for proper respect. The writers got it wrong at every turn this season.
So there you have it. The long list of my gripes for Supernatural’s Season 9 so far. I’m sure I missed some you would want to remind me of. I’m also certain many readers don’t agree with what I wrote here. Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments. These articles are an outlet for me to rant about the decline of my favorite show. But more than that, they are a space for you to say whatever is on your mind about Supernatural and challenge my claims. If I failed to mention something you thought was important, or if you think I got something wrong, please speak up.
I’d like to wish everyone happy holidays and a wonderful New Year with a new Supernatural that hopefully will dazzle us all and make the purpose of these reviews completely obsolete. Let that be my wish to Santa this year.