Hello Supernatural fans and welcome to the first Gripe Review of 2014.
I was pleased with the overwhelming response to the last review. So many fans saying they had thought the same things and discussing their own issues with the show. It encourages me to continue writing these reviews if only for the insightful discussions they spark.
But enough about last review. Let’s talk about Season 9’s second half and my take on its first episode “Road Trip.”
I loved this episode.
It came at a time when the show resembled a worn rug with loose ends and out of character threads hanging from it everywhere, and it actually managed to pull some of those threads together. As far as damage control this episode did a lot of heavy lifting and gave us a lot of hope.
Allow me to list some of the things this episode did right, things I would like to see continued in this fashion throughout the rest of the season. Even though this is a gripe review this constitutes as praise. I’m not here to nitpick on an episode or a writer. I won’t hesitate to give credit where credit is due. So here are the positives I saw in the episode:
- Pretty much every character present in the mythology had a role in the plot. From Gadreel, to Crowley, to Abaddon, to Metatron to Crowley’s henchwoman who had no qualms telling him she worked for both sides. Everyone was in the right place being utilized for the right function. No one was ignored or wasted.
- Dean’s reactions to Kevin’s death was shown. It wasn’t swept under the carpet in favor of his anxiety over Sam or his eagerness to save his brother or take revenge. His actions also felt natural and organic, not like a wound up doll who was programmed to act in a certain way. He interacted with other characters in realistic, in-character ways and did more than just wring his hands worrying about his brother.
- Castiel was himself again, no longer bumbling around looking for a sitcom to star in. Gone was the slapstick clown bewildered by appliances and human bodily functions and in his place was an ally focused on the ongoing story. Castiel’s role was very important in driving the plot of this episode and I very much welcomed his return to the serious side of the show.
- Sam actually took charge at some point. He was not just a victim, or a noble concept everyone talked about. He got to stand up for himself, and even though it was only for a few short scenes, we got to hear and see what went on in his head. More importantly it felt real, and therefore sympathetic, not a confused stroll through dreamscapes where random things with questionable meanings happened. And his words at the end of the episode actually made sense, unlike the riddled speech he gave at the end of season 8.
- Crowley was also back to his original game: the scheming salesman, not the mustache twirling villain they turned him into in season 8. I like Gray Crowley much better than Dark Crowley and I hope they keep him this way.
- Dean’s apology to Castiel was genuine and necessary. I thought we would never get to see it and they would continue with Dean acting dismissive and blind toward Castiel. But it happened in this episode and along with it came valuable dialogue that reinstated the connection between them and brought back the history they shared together onto the surface.
- Sam’s last line to Dean was a gem. I have been waiting for an indication that this story was more than yet another Hurt-Sam storyline with the added piling of guilt on Dean. That it would go somewhere and changed some of the causes of the tragedies in the Winchester lives. Changing the toxic nature of the brothers’ codependency was my path of choice and I’m pleased to see that Sam’s conversation with Dean, especially his last line, seemed to hint at that.
For those who don’t know what I’m talking about let me refresh your memory. In the last segment of the episode Dean begins to rant about how all of this is his fault, how he is like poison that infects everyone around him and caused their deaths, and how it’s best if he distanced himself from them for a while. When he starts walking away Sam tells him, “Go, but don’t go thinking that’s the problem cause it’s not.” With this line Sam shows how cognizant he is about the root of their problem: not Dean himself but Dean’s entrapment in his restrictive version of brotherly love and his insistence to orbit around Sam to the point of becoming deaf and blind to everything else. It’s a huge step forward for the show to have at least one Winchester have that realization. We could only hope he’ll be able to help Dean see it too and they could achieve a level of balance in their relationship that would not have one of them burn the world – and himself with it – just to protect the other.
This episode was written by Andrew Dabb whom as off last Wednesday was removed from my list of Supernatural writers who should be fired. I liked how unassuming he treated this story, how humble. He didn't add personal details from his own life and boast about it on his twitter account (he doesn't even have a twitter account.) His dialogue was clean and bereft of cheesy lines such as “no me if no you.” He kept everyone in character and didn't deny any of them a spot to shine. His humor was tasteful and his angst the right amount. He proved that steering the story into the right direction, even at this stage with all the problems, isn't impossible. All it takes is a dose of good writing and a reduction of ego on the writer’s part.
Yet, since this is a Gripe Review, I can’t leave it without listing some gripes. Let me say that most of these are not Dabb’s fault, but a result of the circumstances he was writing the episode in, and the place the earlier half of the season had left him. In most cases he was helpless to avoid the gripe because the issue was created by others who came before him, and Carver who designed the season’s overall arc. I am fully aware and respectful of that even though I have an obligation to point out the bits that were still loose and dangling from the structure.
Gripe #1: Why did Gadreel insist on staying in Sam?
At the start of the episode I was under the impression that Gadreel’s previous vessel was lost, until they showed Tahmoh Penikett working at the bar. We knew Gadreel could re-possess him due to his initialy given consent. There was no reason for him staying in Sam, especially when the seat became hot under Crowley’s torture. Unless there was some motive behind his occupation of Sam that would be revealed later on the show - beyond simply needing a body - that felt like a strange and gaping plot hole.
Gripe #2: Haven’t we seen all this before?
This is where what I said about Andrew Dabb not being guilty of an issue comes to play. He was handed yet another half written “Save Sammy” storyline and couldn't possibly write something else. What’s unfortunate is that, as emotional and heart quenching this story was, it was also a patchwork of all the tropes and scenes we had already seen before on the show. Sam being possessed by an entity and assuming that entity’s voice and behavior while boasting about it reminded me of the end of season 5. Sam tied to a chair being “handled” by someone to fix something in him was reminisce of season 2’s Meg possession, or season six’s soulless Sam souloscopy by Castiel. Sam screaming while Dean and Cas listened in the background, and Dean suffered through it, was a textbook copy of season 4’s My Bloody Valentine. And Sam being encouraged to fight whatever evil was possessing him was right out of Swan Song.
Gripe #3: The great discrepancy between season 6 and season 9.
This was addressed in a slightly different manner by Laura Prudom in her review of the episode:
One of my favorite aspects of Castiel’s character is his grace — not the physical force that gives angels their power, but the capacity for forgiveness, mercy and patience that many associate with divinity. Dean has often rushed to judgment and castigation whenever the angel has made a mistake or chosen not to confide his problems, but when their roles were finally reversed, Castiel didn’t admonish or chide his friend, instead simply telling Dean that he was sorry and trying to reassure him that he was “stupid for the right reasons,” a response he was no doubt hoping to hear from Dean way back in “The Man Who Would Be King,” when his own questionable alliance with Crowley came to light.However my issue with this disparity isn't the difference between the characters’ reaction to two parallel situations, which is understandable due to their different characteristics and personality traits. Mine is an issue with the show itself.
Back in season 6 the way the show (not just Dean, but the collective attitude of the story) handled Castiel's misstep strongly implied a verdict that the end didn't justify the means. I came to understand that no matter how dire, justifiable, or “right” Cas’ reasons for doing the things he did were he would not be excused because the end result was world’s destruction through the Leviathans. So my understanding of SPN’s moral compass was that if you do something that ends in disaster you don’t get to justify it by bringing forth all the “good” reasons you did it.
Fast forward to season 9 where roles are reversed and it is Dean now who stands in the metaphorical ring of fire. The insertion of the line “stupid for the right reasons” made me do a double take. The show essentially went back on its own decree and said that it is in fact ok to make stupid mistakes if you’re doing them for a good cause. That made me question why no one said that to Castiel in season 6 and why he was dragged through the mud for another season and half when he was basically trying to stop Raphael from reinstalling the apocalypse and destroying the world. Why did the show, and every character on the show, write off his reasoning as excuses and snubbed even his future attempts at making amends? And if that all was in fact the right course of action because a road paved in good intentions is still wrong if it leads to hell, then why didn't the writers serve the same dish to Dean this season and changed the company line to “Ok if for the right reasons?"
Gripe #4: Suicidal Sam.
I loved Sam’s mature reaction at the end of the episode. I loved that he didn't throw a tantrum and walk away like he used to do. That shows character growth on his part even though we never got to see the journey he went through to get there from the inside. I also already mentioned how much I loved his last line.
However something about Sam’s dialogue still jarred the authenticity of that conversation and slightly ruined its effect, and that was Sam declaring twice he wanted to die. I already talked about this in my last review, about how this is an unacceptable motive for a beloved character and how when they complain about not achieving it the audience doesn't go along with them. If Sam’s complaint was that he wanted to leave, go to university, start a normal life, or anything that didn't end up with him in the ground I could get behind him and accept his frustration with Dean. But when his claim to injustice is that he wanted to die and Dean stopped it, I’m with Dean, because as he said, it’s not in Dean to let that happen.
This has nothing to do with the lopsided codependency that needs to be righted, because it’s Dean losing his brother for good. I don’t have a codependent relationship of their level with my sister but if she one day wanted to die and I had the means to prevent it you bet I would. No amount of respecting her agency and her right to choose for herself would change that. So sadly in this case I couldn't really see both sides of the argument and that partly ruined the emotional effect of that excellent last scene for me.
Hope you enjoyed this mixed bag of a review. It’s both exciting and difficult to write a Gripe Review for an episode that looks actually promising. I hope the challenge for me continues into future episodes so that eventually we’d arrive at a point where I have nothing but praise to give for the show.
Don’t forget to sound off your own opinions/gripes in the comment section.