Back in January, when I was reviewing episode 9.10 I praised Andrew Dabb for his unassuming, uncluttered, character driven writing and took him off of my should-be-fired list. Then he wrote and promoted Bloodlines and I re-examined my position because…well, we all watched Bloodlines.
With 9.22 he gained his status back as the writer who is a head and a tiny shoulder above the rest of Carver’s staff.
Don’t get me wrong, the episode still had a ton of problems, many of which were his doing. But he also did one thing no writer this season cared or dared to do: he pitted a character against the plot and let the character win.
The scene I’m talking about is the angels seizing Dean and asking Castiel to choose between him and their loyalty.
Hard-Choice scenes are some of the best in stories. An entire book could lead to one and end after its resolution is decided. Dean choosing Sam by making a deal with a crossroads demon was the centerpiece of seasons 1-3. Everything that came before or after hinged on it. Similarly the entire arcs of seasons 4&5 were centered on Dean, Sam and Cas rejecting Heaven and Hell and choosing free will.
The reason such scenes are powerful is because they bring a character’s core to the front and challenge it. The character has to choose, and their choice is bound by who and what they are. The decision they make steers the plot, sometimes to one of two possible directions, sometimes to a whole new one. But regardless where the plot ends, it will be because of what the character decides, which in turn depends on who the character really is deep inside, in other words character driven storytelling.
That scene in Stairway To Heaven was such a scene. It was a risky one and I got nervous when it started, hoping Dabb would remember Castiel’s core psychology shown to us over 6 seasons. If Castiel had killed Dean, or even made a attempt to kill Dean all would have been lost. It would have made the writers and showrunner disrespectful toward their own canon since it was during Carver’s reign that Naomi’s Manchurian Candidate plot was produced.
Thankfully Dabb didn’t and the penultimate episode was saved. What followed were pleasant Team Free Will undertones, at least to this Team Free Will fan who loved seeing all three boys under the same roof. It still had a lot of rough edges that I will address shortly, but at least it didn’t hurt, not as much as it would have had the runaway plot steamrolled all over everything we knew and loved about Castiel and Dean and ruined what was left of this season.
Gripe #1 – Metatron, again!
It’s safe to say the storyline we’re going into the finale with is Dean losing his mind to the Mark of Cain (therein referred to as the mark,) with Metatron as the final boss. Before I get to the mark and all its problems let’s talk about Metatron as the season’s main and final villain.
I’ve already talked extensively about why he’s a weak antagonist in the previous reviews. He is not scary, or funny, or witty, or domineering, or smart, or powerful, or scheming. The only thing that makes so many hate him (and not in the love-to-hate kind of way) is that he is annoying. What I want to talk about though is why he isn’t enough to fuel a ‘blind rage’ storyline such as the one we’re being lead to.
Usually when a character shows uncontrolled anger toward a villain it’s because of some personal experience. You barely see a hero loose his cool because a villain started a big war, massacred a population, or ran a drug cartel. Most times it’s because a home is lost in the war, a loved one killed in the massacre, or a life ruined due to drugs. Universal bad behavior isn’t as good a motivation for becoming Vader in fiction as personal suffering is.
Look at the two instances we had on Supernatural. Season 4 Sam went darkside because Lilith tore his brother to shreds in front of him. Season 6 Castiel chose the wrong path because Raphael aimed to destroy everything he loved and fought for since season 4. Both made sense in their madness.
This isn’t true about Dean and Metatron. I can’t tell what Metatron has done to Dean that has him so hell bent on killing him. I said the same thing about Dean and Abaddon several episodes ago, when she was his prime target and Metatron was an afterthought. I didn’t know what his grudge against her was then, and I don’t know what his grudge against Metatron is now.
You could say Metatron killed Kevin. The show even made an attempt to remind us of it in one of the recaps. But the problem still is that Dean didn’t care about it until now. If Dean hadn’t focused on Abaddon so much, if he’d been all about Metatron – or Gadreel – all this time, I would’ve bought this reasoning. But he acted at peace after Kevin’s ghost talked to him, and didn’t bother with Metatron until this episode. How am I supposed to know how he feels when those feelings shift according to the most immediate plot?
And there is our real culprit again: the plot. The reason Dean’s Mark of Cain storyline has a weak motive is because it’s largely plot oriented. It is not pointed toward a single goal based on Dean’s inner struggle and personal hang up. It oscillates to point in whatever direction the writer-of-the-moment wants it to.
Gripe #2 – What is this mark business?
Cain gave Dean the mark when Crowley talked him into finding a way to kill Abaddon. Let’s forget about Gripe #1 and the question of why Dean would care about that, and assume it’s the mark – and not a strong personal drive – that causes Dean to go after bad guys.
That brings us to the subject of the mark, and what effect it has on the bearer.
The backstory of the mark is a bit murky. If I recall correctly Cain received it to keep his arrogant brother out of hell, which was a noble act. Cain himself appeared very calm and in control the first time we met him, and when he gave the mark to Dean, for several episodes after that Dean was calm too.
Then we hit the final stretch of the season, and are finished with werewolf Garth and Annie Vampire, and the mark starts acting up. It’s as if the writers ignored it until they needed it to advance the final plot, and they suddenly turned it on. That inconsistency, coupled with the fact that we have no clue – neither from the backstory, nor from Cain himself– what the mark does to the person wearing it, makes its story confusing.
Despite being an undefined piece of the mythology the mark is now the center of this season’s main storyline. Not having a definitive description of its effect frees the writers from having to limit themselves to canon restrictions and allows them to use it in whatever fashion they want, making the story hard to predict and giving rise to problems such as Gripe #7.
Gripe #3 – Sam and Cas go to Disneyland
Just as it bothered me that Sam took a basement trip in the last episode so Dean could be alone in his final Abaddon battle, I couldn’t understand the redundant part of this episode where Sam and Cas take a trip to a warded warehouse. I can’t even remember why they went there, which speaks volumes about how pointless the reason must have been. They enter a place that looks like a Haunted House at a Halloween fair, pass some Prince of Persia inspired traps, and end up on the set of “Carrie” before the prom sequence.
The other problem with all this, aside from it being entirely pointless, is that it’s also incredibly boring and without tension. There are the blades of course, but only a child would think they present any form of danger to two main characters. They don’t encounter any enemies, or surprises, or revelations, and the end is a giant letdown. They neither learn nor gain anything. It’s all a huge time filler to keep Sam and Castiel occupied while Dean tackles the real plot with Tessa.
Gripe #4 – The disaster that was Tessa
Do I even need to talk about this one? What a sad ending for Tessa, the beautiful, respectable and beloved reaper who was a precious relic from season 2 and introduced us to the entire species. At least Ellen, Jo, Pamella, Sarah and even Meg went out with dignity.
First they change her species (though I hear they claim reapers are angels now,) then they make her crazy and suicidal. If there’s one thing that was established about Tessa in the previous seasons was that she was as duty bound and no nonsense as Death himself. She didn’t mess around, she didn’t let personal feelings or a little hardship get in the way of her job, and she taught these lessons to Dean.
How are we supposed to link that character – known by such strictly defined personality it was used twice in plot – to this brainwashed, out of control, suicide bomber? What happened to her? What happened to Death? If the souls are screaming so badly reapers are going insane, shouldn’t he show up and do something about it? Or is he on a trip to Disneyland too?
Gripe #5 – The flaky angels nobody likes
Since season 5 ended there’s always been voices who demanded the Heaven and Hell story to end and the angels taken off the show. Never before have those voices been as loud as this season, nor did I ever lean toward them as much as I do now.
These angels are ridiculous. I’ve said it before many times how much I despise their disjointed season 9 storyline, how inconsistent and feather brained they are, and how they have been reduced to mere shadows of the mighty, mythical creatures they once used to be.
But this episode was the straw that broke the camel’s back. After latching onto Castiel, who neither wanted to be their leader, nor showed any signs of strong leadership skills, they suddenly break off the agreement and join the other side after one chat with the enemy. They build a vast underground headquarters, assign ranks and responsibilities to individuals, draw charts and build war plans with sophisticated blinky lights, then collectively give up and leave because Metatron said some stuff over a video? Accusations for which he provided neither proof nor details? What kind of idiots are these creatures? Is there even a question why a large section of the fandom wants them off the screen?
The irony of this silly storyline is that it happened in the same episode where a bunch of these idiots were shown going off the rails due to too much devotion to Castiel. Apparently there’s no middle ground with them, they're either zealots or double-crossers, which makes one wonder if Castiel isn't better off without them. What's the use of an army of mercurial lunatics who could turn on him in the blink of an eye, for as flimsy a reason as “Metatron said so.”
Gripe #6 – The tropes that plague Castiel
It may seem hypocritical of me to slam the Choice scene after I spent the beginning of this review praising it. I have my reasons though, and while one writing choice could generate applause, it’s not unreasonable if coexisting ones generate criticism.
Some of those writing choices were those I talked about in the previous gripe. The fact that Castiel’s so-called army was so willing to drop everything and leave after one allegation was eyeroll inducing. This is not how a situation like this is handled in real life. Typically, if this happens in a real army, the commander is placed under arrest while a temporary one takes his place and starts investigating the case, which then leads to a trial.
But the bigger problem is Castiel himself, both how he acts in certain situations, and what is acted upon him.
Castiel’s deer-in-the-headlight reaction when someone puts him on the spot and accuses him of something bad dates back to season 6. It’s hardly out of character for him to say something stupid like “You don’t understand,” or “It’s complicated,” instead of articulating his reasons or defending his position with logic and confidence.
However this seems not to be treated as a flaw or weakness of his character by the show, rather a tool for the writers to use when they don’t want to complicate pathways where the accusations need to lead. It’s easier when he clams up and paves the way for his downfall, justified or not, than if he fights back.
In season 6 a lot of backstory was created for Castiel to show what precisely pushed him into doing the things he did – from Raphael’s promise to kill both him and his friends, to how he went to Dean but ended up not telling him the truth. None of it was presented to Dean, Sam and Bobby at his proverbial trial by fire, and hence their judgment of him was based on incomplete information. It made his condemnation and later his demise much easier.
Yet in Purgatory, when the story needed Dean to understand his reasons for leaving him, so that he would take him to the portal and face the rest of the drama together, Castiel suddenly finds the words and defends his actions eloquently.
In this episode Cas once again had to clam up. Had he told the angels to piss off and stop giving him ultimatums, or simply clarified the stolen grace accusation, it wouldn’t have been as easy to have them all join Metatron as it was this way. And since whatever is planned for the finale requires them to all be on Metatron’s side and not with Castiel, he had to play his part that way.
Not to mention Cas made a thankless sacrifice for the Winchesters again, which has become such a repeated trope it rivals Sam falling victim to some evil spell and Dean doing something reckless to rescue him.
Gripe #7 – The trouble with Dark Dean
This one is controversial and took me a while to formulate it objectively. It’s less about whether or not Dean’s actions in this episode were right or wrong (which is the focus of most of the arguments among fans,) and more about whether or not they were by his own will or side effects of the mark.
I already said in Gripe #2 that there’s a problem with the mark’s influence being mostly a mystery. We don’t know if it makes a bearer overly angry, or distrustful, or violent. We don’t know if it brings out hidden feelings and old grudges, or creates imaginary new ones that drive the bearer mad.
With Dean it’s even more complicated because he is the POV character and less morally compromised than the rest of them. We are used to believe Dean’s way is the right way in most situations. We defer to him when we want to know whose side to take. Obviously this isn’t true for everyone especially those leaning more toward Sam or Cas, but it seems to be the show’s opinion that is enforced by the writers and accepted by most casual viewers.
Now Dean is on the verge of a downfall and one wonders which of his actions are due to the mark’s effect (bad) and which are his usual behavior (not bad.) He gets overly angry at Cas because he is convinced he is the one behind the suicide bombings. Later in the car Cas describes him as being angrier than usual. Is the objective viewer supposed to believe Dean was angrier than usual, and unfair to Cas, due to being consumed by the mark's effect? Or were his actions his own and justified because Castiel is untrustworthy?
Similarly toward the end of the episode Dean lashes out at Sam for getting on his case about the blade. Again this could be seen as Dean acting out of control under the influence of the mark, or him finally having had enough of Sam bossing him around and deciding to stand up for himself.
The examples don’t end there: The attack on the nurse angel – good? because she was a self-rightous ‘dick,’ or bad because he was? Tessa’s murder – good? because of what she was doing and how she wanted to kill innocent people, or bad because he wasn’t supposed to have the blade with him and kill her like that? It goes on and on, and even though I have my own opinion about each of these (mostly not in favor of Dean I might add,) I don't know what we’re expected to believe objectively, because with Dean in the hot seat there’s no writer-approved moral compass to use as reference.
Next week is the finale and the previews are already out. Many seem less than enthusiastic about the story and the overall level of satisfaction seems at an all time low. While I don’t have any predictions about what will happen in the finale, I do have a wishlist of things I hope would not happen:
- No one, under no circumstances, should be possessed by Metatron.
- There shall be no scenarios or circumstances under which Metatron survives into the next season (please!)
- No one should pull anyone consumed by blind rage out of their blind rage by talking to them slowly and incoherently so they would remember good times.
- No one should sacrifice himself for another person and die, be grievously injured, or put on a countdown to death.
- Sam should stay healthy and whole for the entire finale and beyond. No more breaking Sammy for the sake of cranking up the tension and drama of the cliffhanger.
- No one should be unreasonably mean and hurtful to another person and break a relationship for flimsy, stupid reasons.
- No one who won't stay dead should die.
If you say I just denied the writers all possible go-to strategies for the final episode then you're right. It’s high time they pulled their heads out of the cheerleading social media sands and wrote something original.
See you on the other side of the finale. Don’t forget to sound off in the comments.