I am pissed. It’s not often that I’m pissed writing the Gripe Review. Usually I’m contemplative, analytic, even humored. But this time I’m angry, because it’s very clear to me that these writers aren’t going to give this show a break.
We’re in the final stretch of the season, the last lap, the countdown. This is no time for messing around and having fun because there are only three episodes left and a lot of ground to cover, and who does Carver assign to an episode? The duo of writers who are first on my (and many others') need-to-be-fired list. And they don’t disappoint.
I thought a lot about why I no longer enjoyed the show as much as I used to. Sure I have the gripes (and boy did I have to trim the list this week, to avoid ranting on,) but the problem is larger and more fundamental. It’s in the way the writers treat the characters on the show, like slaves shackled and dragged by their largely uninspired stories.
Forget the overuse of exposition, forget the relentless slaughtering of canon, or the canyon sized plotholes. This is the main problem with season 9, the thing that makes it so infuriatingly inferior to the previous seasons: all characters serve at the pleasure of the plot.
The devil behind nearly all the problems we see in this episode, and most of what we saw so far, is this. The writers are looking through the narrow end of the funnel and not seeing what made this show great and successful in the past. Supernatural has always been a character driven show. The plot followed the characters across the main arc, telling their story (not just A Story) and revealing different facets of their personalities.
It had been this way until very recently, before the last decent writer from the old group, Ben Edlund, left the show. Now we’re stuck with people who have turned the formula around. Now characters follow the plot and bend and twist backwards and sideways to accommodate it. This is why even a storyline as compelling as the Mark of Cain feels flat and forced. It lacks heart. It lacks humanity. It is missing character force, and players whose characteristics rationalize what happens on screen.
Gripe #1 – The longest recap in the history of the show
One minute and 50 seconds, that’s how long this thing ran, and it included everything, from Gadreel’s story, to the angel wars, to the Mark of Cain, to the awkwardly patched together line, “Abaddon! She’s a demon, who is a Knight of Hell!” Thank you Mr. Obvious, I just woke up from a coma and needed a quick and dizzying tour of everything that happened this season.
Why did we need to hear about Hell Hounds again when the only appearance one had was a pointless scene in a graveyard where it chased Sam and Dean into a tomb? Did their editor fall sick and they had Timmy the intern put something quickly together?
Gripe #2 – The clowns formerly known as angels
Remember when angels were scary? When even the thought of them being around struck fear into everyone who was on their kill list? When it was remarkably brave of Sam and Dean to go up against them and one more reason for us to admire their courage?
How did they go from that, to this?
I could turn a blind eye on out of character behavior from time to time, but an entire race of characters suddenly behaving OOC? How is that acceptable?
One of the most fascinating aspects of angels in the earlier seasons was that you could tell who and what they were just by looking at them. Unlike demons, who blended with humans until the black eyes came out, angels were alien. They were awkward and quiet and had this strangeness about them that was slightly off, like they felt uncomfortable in their vessels. Even in later seasons when they introduced Gabriel and Balthazar, and the lines blurred a bit, there were still the tell-tale signs in the lackey angels. The last significant identifier, the suits, went away this season and oddly enough, showed up on Crowley’s demons.
There's this complaint I see a lot - I've even seen it in responses to these reviews - that the angel/heaven storyline has run its course and viewers want something else. I wonder what people mean by that because these certainly aren’t the angels we were introduced to. These are bland, ordinary characters who only carry the label of angels, like it's a membership to a club. They could be called werewolves, or demons, or agents or hipsters and it wouldn’t make a difference. Not when they crack human jokes and congregate in a headquarter that looks like something out of The Hunt for Red October.
Gripe #3 – The commander
I enjoyed the other angels calling Castiel “commander.” He’s my favorite character and Heaven’s only relic left from the old days. I like him to be respected, even by the weird army of angels who look like they belong on Agents of the SHIELD instead of Supernatural.
But I couldn't help to ask why him, especially after meeting him in his command center. As the leader of the largest faction of angels opposing Metatron Castiel seems awfully insecure. He keeps saying he’s not a leader and he comes off as uncertain and docile. It could be to enforce the idea of him not wanting to do this because he considers it part of Metatron’s plan. But it still begs the question, why do the rest of the angels insist on following him? What do they see in him that makes them think he’s fit for command? If I look at him and see a character too weak and indecisive to be involved in any war planning - and I am a fan of his – how could these complete strangers put their faith in him, or be intimidated by him?
Gripe #4 – Castiel serving at the pleasure of the plot
“I would give anything not to have you do this,” said a heaven-bound Castiel to a distraught Dean in the season 4 episode On the Head of the Pin. The “this” he was referring to was Dean torturing Alistair, a demon who taught him how to torture in hell. The reason Castiel said this was because, even as early as then, he knew what torturing would do to Dean, how it might bring the darkness out of him and allow it to consume him. He felt sympathetic toward Dean, even though he barely knew him. And despite the decision being largely not his, he felt regret over his involvement in it.
Five seasons later, the same Castiel who is now a close friend of Dean and has more reason to worry about him considering the mark he wears, asks him to torture a prisoner, for as little cause as, “You had success with these situations before.”
Why would Castiel be so callous to ask such a thing of Dean?
Because the plot demands it of him. Because the writers think it is ok to walk all over the core quality of one of the show’s main characters just to drive their plot forward. This is what it means for characters to be slaves to the plot.
So what was the point of getting Dean into the interrogation room? Was it for yet another demonstration of the mark's effect? Dean did after all show a considerable amount of interest during their conversation.
Which brings me to Gripe #5, and the baffling fact that that's not even what happened.
Gripe #5 – The most awkward scene in the history of the show
I watched the interrogation of the dumbest angel in the world expecting to get yet another face full of how badly the mark messed with Dean. It was obvious they would ignore his history with torture, as did Castiel, and have him go at the guy like he was his second chance at Gadreel. Why else would they bend two characters out of shape to get Dean into the room?
But then something else happens. Before Dean could start with the guy Sam stops him, and the two of them launch the most tired, silly and overused trick in the book: reverse psychology.
I’ve seen this done on several TV shows. It’s quite hard to make it work so the audience actually believes it. In most cases it happens in just an instant, before the victim realizes their slip and tries to backpedal.
But here it lasts more than 4 minutes, something that should not have worked in the first place because Sam and Dean are the guy’s interrogators, not a couple of his drinking buddies who caught him on a happy night and fooled him into spilling his guts. The guy would be wary of them.
Even if we believed this angel had pudding for brains, the way the conversation builds up is quite ridiculous. It becomes more and more forced as it goes on until it becomes so fake it drags the scene to the ground. After two minutes I was yelling “Stop!” at my screen. I simply couldn’t stand the second hand embarrassment I was feeling for the poor actors involved.
I’m of the belief that Jared and Jensen could sell any scene on this show no matter how outlandish it is. It’s what gave creative writers like Edlund the tools to work with. But there’s a limit to how much even they could do. If I am sitting here, watching and cringing at how badly a scene sounds and feels, I could only imagine how uncomfortable they must have felt.
Gripe #6 – A time traveler with the most perplexing priorities
Let’s talk about Crowley’s son, Gavin. This guy travels almost three hundred years into the future, to a time where light is produced by candles without flames, and horse-free carriages speed through the city’s streets. He is told that his father sold his soul to the devil and is now the King of Hell.
And what does he want to talk about? Family issues.
Lets recap this again. A guy who is just transported 291 years into the future, and is lectured by a man who claims to be his father but looks nothing like him, wants to talk about his childhood with him. Why doesn't he run out to explore the world he’s been dropped into? Why doesn't he ask about it? Why isn't it the only thing he talks about? What if the spell only last a few minutes before he is thrown back into his own time? Wouldn't he want to find out as much a possible about the fantastic future he's brought into? Isn't curiosity one of humanity’s most primal instincts?
Crowley’s son however won’t spend more than mere seconds marvelling at the wonders of the new world before starting a row with his father about how much he hates him, because that talk is important to the plot. And since plot is dictating everything both Crowley and Gavin turn into puppets of the writers, delivering exposition after exposition so that we know the reason behind things, even if it makes no sense.
Gripe #7 – Editing a Frankenstein episode
This episode starts off with Sam and Dean meeting up with Castiel, talking about their plans to defeat Metatron and gathering information from their super awkward angel interrogation. Then Dean receives a phone call from Crowley and off they go to a different adventure involving Abaddon. There is literally no transition between the two storylines, not even a phone call between the Winchesters and Castiel to tell each other what they are doing. One minute they are plotting in Castiel’s office, the next they are on the road, not even remembering what they did in the first 25 minutes of the episode.
This effectively cuts the episode in half, making it seem like two episodes sewn together as one. The reason that phone call between the brothers and Castiel was important was because it would have connected these two parts. I know it could have happened off screen, or they could have not bothered with it as people sometimes do in real life. But it had to happen on camera in this case, for the sake of coherence and continuity, so that the audience won't sit there wondering, “What happened to that…other thing? How come they are doing something else? Did I fall asleep and wake up next week?”
Gripe #8 – Sam serving at the pleasure of the plot
Sam was the only bright speck of light in this clutter of irrational behavior and awkward, embarrassing dialogue. Maybe it was because he wasn’t as tightly chained to the ongoing storylines as Castiel or Dean, so Jared had a bit more wiggle room to portray Sam the way he used to be. I’m sure we’d go back to modified Sam soon enough, when the plot once again sends its slimy tentacles after him. But for this episode he was the good old Sam, and his worry for Dean seemed genuine.
That is until they reached Crowley’s hotel and the brothers suddenly, inexplicably split up. Dean made up a bogus story about demons in the basement and Sam swallowed it whole. He handed Dean the First Blade and departed for Off-Screen Land, where good characters go when they need to disappear for a time so that something could happen in their absence.
Who in their right mind believes Sam would leave Dean alone with the Blade, especially after what he saw Dean was capable of and how the Blade and the Mark affected him? In a better show, one that respected its characters’ intelligence and personalities, Sam would secretly follow Dean to see what he was up to. It would be harder for the writers to come up with an excuse as to why he was not there when the fight between Dean and Abaddon went down, but it would be more in line with his character and actual logic, which I assume is what the writers are paid for to do.
Gripe #9 – The idiot formerly known as Abaddon
And then we have Abaddon, one of the most interesting and supposedly intelligent villains to appear on the show.
First she throws Dean against the wall, the way most bad guys do when they want to waste time with the Winchesters. Then she launches into an exposition about what she would do. “First this, then that…that’s quite a to-do list!”
Which begs the question, “Why aren’t you doing it?”
It's funny that the Blade, the instrument of her ultimate destruction, is right there in Dean’s hand, and she doesn’t bother to remove it, or take it, or send it far away like she surely could do. She just talks and keeps forcing Dean against the wall. Why doesn’t she wring his neck? Why did she need him there in the first place?
Think about it: Crowley had the blade. Abaddon had Crowley. All she had to do was to kill Crowley and the whole project would be shut down. The Winchesters wouldn’t have the blade, or any way to find it, and Dean’s mark would become harmless. She could’ve gone about executing her evil plan in order to take control of Hell and once she was the queen, she could have sent her minions to finish them off, if she still cared.
But instead she cooked up this elaborate plan to get Dean exactly where he had to be, with the weapon he had to use, and kept yapping on and on about her plan until he got the break he needed to kill her. Sure it was a spectacular scene in terms of visual effects and execution. But it got spoiled by all the absurdity that preceded it to get the characters into the right position at the right time.
I’m not holding much hope for the rest of the season. There are only two episodes left and fans are making speculations about what will happen in the finale. I have no theories. As far as I’m concerned anything could happen. Sam could kill Dean, Dean could kill Sam, or Castiel could kill both of them, right before he kisses Metatron on the mouth and starts to dance the Viennese Waltz around Heaven with Crowley. When characters are bound by the plot, instead of the other way around, no behavior is too outlandish or ridiculous for them.
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome below.