Hello Supernatural fans and welcome to the Gripe Review, where I respond to SPN fans’ joy and celebration over an episode giving them a storyline they were waiting for with my crazy talk about story structure, dialogue and narrative.
I thought this episode did a good job carrying the momentum 9.10 established last week. I liked where all the characters ended up, each with their own quest to follow or assist with. What I didn’t like however was how it was all written and executed.
I remember back when I read the episode synopsis I got really excited. For the longest time I had wished for a Sam and Castiel bonding moment because it was truly needed. They both had shown, on separate occasions, that they cared for each other, yet they acted like those friends who never came to the same parties or always showed up when the other was leaving. Having them spend some time together opened up many possibilities, like talking about their similar experiences, comparing notes about Dean, and most importantly strengthening their friendship. Also Cain sounded like an exciting story idea for Dean and Crowley to follow so all signs pointed at an excellent episode.
I was sourly disappointed with what actually happened on screen, and I lay the blame on Robbie Thompson who wrote the script, which is what makes my situation here difficult. Robbie, as it turns out, is one of the more popular writers of the show. He’s an active Twitter user who engages fans with little tidbits about cast and crew. He burst into the social media scene claiming to support certain fan favorite themes. And he gets to writer some the most emotional, pairing related, gear changing episodes. None of this changes the fact that he is an average writer who usually does a paint-by-the-numbers job with his scripts. With him (and Adam Glass) you mostly get very linear and predictable stories, usually with mediocre dialogue. Neither of them spend that much time brainstorming on a plot that would surprise you, red herring you, or to serve any more excitement than the bare minimum required for their purpose.
Read the gripes to see what I mean, then fire your tomato torpedoes at me in the comments.
Gripe #1: Give me Sam’s POV…NOW!
I’ve had it up to here with writers and the show using Sam as an integral plot device without telling me how he feels or thinks about any of it. Last episode, when it was Dean hanging out with Cas, we got a full post-hoc analysis on Dean’s emotional state following the events of the first half of the season. This epsiode was the perfect opportunity to do the same with Sam and have him tell Castiel (us) how he felt about his angel possession, Dean lying to him, or being the vessel used to kill Kevin. He could have opened up about Dean’s absence and how that affected him, since we only got one line about it from him last episode.
I’m beginning to suspect the writers themselves don’t know much about Sam. They never give him the chance to emote, and every time the chance inadvertently comes up they skirt around it (like when Jody asked him about his bond with Dean in 9.08.) In all of Sam's post season 5 stories, the trials, leaving Amelia, dealing with Lucifer (something he and Cas shared,) going to hell, etc. we never got a glance inside Sam’s head to understand how each of them affected him. All we ever got were sound bites that sent the fandom spinning into speculations.
In this episode, instead of giving us a heart to heart between Sam and Cas like the two dozen ones we got between Dean and Cas, we get the same deal. Sam clamps up every time Cas mentions Dean or Gadreel, then Cas launches into a rant about humanity, the value of life and PB&J (most nonsensical analogy I heard,) and eventually their time together crumbles into the stinking swamp that’s Gripe #2.
Some fans claim Sam feels guilty because he thinks he failed at everything. It’s a valid speculation but still just that, a speculation. Until he actually talks about it with someone – Dean, Cas, even Garth – we can’t say much about Sam Winchester that is canon, and it makes sympathizing with him quite difficult.
Gripe #2: The trope that is repeated so much it needs to be banned.
You know those tropes that happen on shows so many times they become running gags, like Kenny being killed on South Park? Supernatural has a couple of those, except instead of being funny (since they aren’t intended to be) they are irritating.
Picture Sam being tied to a chair (or some other raised surface) while someone towers over him and does something to him that makes him scream. Now tell me how many times, in how many different permutations, have you seen that image on the show? It’s reached a level that I feel both ill and amused every time I see it coming. It is worse when, like in this episode, someone like Castiel keeps a running commentary about Just. How. Much. The deed is hurting Sam.
I expect this kind of fetishism from fanfiction writers. I’m eternally baffled why it keeps happening on the show. When Sera Gamble was in charge people accused her of being a Sam fan and said that was why her seasons were piled high with this trope. Now Carver is in charge and we get the same deal, making me wonder who is really in charge of pulling the strings that land Sam on the torture table?
Last season when we had to sit through half a season of Sam being systematically beaten – which like in this episode resulted in nothing – the goal at least was to close the gates of Hell. This time Sam insisted on going through the pain for the sake of taking revenge. I couldn’t comprehend how the writer/showrunner expected us to feel bad for him when his motive was as cliche and trivial as that, not something epic like the apocalypse or trapping all demons for eternity. I know the idea was to veer Sam off of his self-sacrificing path since it got hammered into our heads by Castiel (see Gripe #3) so insistently, but for that to have an impact a writer first has to make me care about the character and the cause, and it’s hard to do that when I’m rolling my eyes over the proverbial Kenny getting killed for the millionth time for something that doesn't even matter that much.
Gipe #3: Show don’t tell.
It’s such an overstated rule of writing I feel silly putting it here. Yet it is something that is committed by show writers on a regular basis. Robbie’s episodes in particular are full of dialogue that is simply there to “inform” us of something we’d rather “watch” on screen. This episode is no exception. Let’s observe:
-Cas tells Sam how different he feels as a born again angel and how he and Dean should be loving brothers
-Tara tells Dean (multiple times) how she keeps comparing him to John and finding Dean wanting
-Crowley tells Dean Cain is the most frightening creature alive (which Cain doesn’t live up to. More on that in Gripe #5.)
-Cain tells Dean (multiple times) how he knows about his reputation as a brave hunter
-Sam tells Cas his life isn’t worth more than anyone else.
I don’t know why Robbie thought he had to hold our hands through all of this by making characters say things straight up. Every writer worth his salt knows that good dialogue consists of evading, hinting, stalling and implying, because that is how real people talk. You should never let your characters get on a soapbox and announce the things you want your viewers to know.
And yet Castiel alone violated this rule so many times in this episode I wanted to tune him out. I’d never seen a character act like a PSA megaphone to this extent on any TV show. Every word that came out of his mouth in his scenes with Sam sounded like a lecture. Compare that to how he spoke to Dean in 9.10 and you’ll see the difference.
Gripe #4: The other trope that is repeated so much it needs to be banned.
Why did Cain go straight? Was it because he got tired of hurting people? Was it because he kept bumping heads with Lucifer and his knights of hell? Did he meet his brother again? Did he reach a dilemma that involved such an unspeakable crime that tilted his broken psyche toward the good side?
No, his big transformation was *drumrolls* because of a woman.
Like John, like Bobby, like Gabriel, like Benny, Chronos, Brick (from Heartache), Prometheus and the Phoenix (from Frontierland.)
There’s only one backstory for men who turn their lives around on Supernatural and that’s “he did it for a woman.”
Some may protest that it’s because this is a theme on the show. I say Cain & Able vs. Lucifer & Michael vs. Sam & Dean is a theme on the show. The concepts are similar, but the details are so different they are all a story of their own. And yet the audience makes the connections and understands the underlying thread. This in contrast is recycling. Its writers falling in love with a trope so much they don't even realize how many times they've used it. It’s lazy writing.
When I heard about Cain’s story I humored myself imagining this would be the reason he quit his ways. When the episode aired I couldn’t believe it was true. It felt like another running gag played for comedy, like Castiel never getting to ride shotgun. Yet this isn't supposed to be funny. It’s supposed to be poignant and heart wrenching, and it’s not, because all I thought about while watching it was, “Welcome to the Loved and Lost club, Cain.”
Gripe #5: Cain, the king of exposition
Speaking of Cain, something else I looked forward to since the episode summary was seeing Cain in all his glory. I pictured him as a beast in control, a dynamic, dark character exuding power that simmered under the surface. The Cain on the show was nothing like I imagined. He looked more like a bored college instructor trying to get rid of a pair of students begging for passing grades. I had high school teachers who looked more intimidating than him.
But that’s my personal gripe and not the real problem with this character. The real problem was his dialogue and actions, which mostly consisted of exposition. The majority of the time he was onscreen he was busy telling us what he did in the past, why he did it, why he was never going to do it again, and finally, how he suddenly decided to do it again. Again a lot of telling, not much showing.
This is a character problem that usually occurs when the writer stacks a character with too much backstory and things that need ‘xplaining. Instead of emotional, character defining dialogue you get plot description from him. The character has so much to clarify about himself and his role in the story he never gets to connect with anyone, or react properly to anything that happens. He goes through a checklist of “things to explain” and does a bunch of things to move the story from one station to another.
In the short time Cain was onscreen he had to tell us about his brother, both the assumed and the real story behind his feud with him, then about what came out of it, the fact that he trained the Knights of Hell, the fact that he was Lucifer’s right hand man, then met a woman, found love, got screwed over by Abaddon, decided to live a life of seclusion and didn’t want to go back to using his powers, had a weapon that could kill those knights, which he had discarded, and the a way to get it back.
Piling so much on a character that is only supposed to be in one episode convolutes the audience’s connection with him. I could see the actor visibly struggling with the dialogue while trying to do something to convey Cain’s personality. He did his best but it still came out weak. On top of that it was hard to understand what he was doing and why he he was doing it due to the way his scenes were structured and organized.
Toward the end, when Dean was demanding he helped them and threatened him with the demon killing knife, he stabbed himself to show it wouldn't kill him, then disappeared from the house. I thought he had left because he was tired of all the noise. But then they showed him sitting at his wife’s gravestone, apologizing to her, before going back to the house again. It was so jarring even Dean commented on it. Then he and we find out the man had a change of heart and was now willing to help. I almost thought I had missed a scene because as hard as I tried I couldn’t remember what brought on this change. Was it something Dean said? Was it one of Abaddon’s minions looking funny at him? Was it a thought inside his head we weren’t privy to?
Or was it because the writer needed it to happen and didn’t bother to back it up with a rationale, perhaps because he is so filled with fan praise he doesn’t think it’s worth the effort?
We can’t make the show better unless we tackle these small problems with writing that keep coming up in episodes. The first step in improvement is to drop all ego and fan “squee” and actually think about what happens on screen, not how our favorite characters got a scene together or our favorite trope was served. We should want a better show, not just a show that gives us what we want regardless of the quality.
Don’t forget to throw your tomatoes at me in the comments. I don’t expect much cheer for this article for reasons I mentioned in the opening, but I’m hoping that the reasons I listed in the gripes at least makes you see my side a little and use a batch of not so rotten ones.