I remember holding off on writing my season five review until this time last year, shortly before the season six premiere. I personally loved how the five season arc was wrapped up, but I had a few criticisms about season five’s pacing, especially after coming off the perfectly plotted season four. Now I face something different with season six. I suddenly find myself forgiving all that happened in season five. Compared to season six, season five was quite superior.
There I go, being harsh again. I’ve been guilty of knocking season six down a bit and that on more than one occasion has hinted that I wasn’t happy with the season. I have to admit, it’s been my least favorite season thus far. But that doesn’t mean in any stretch of the imagination that I hated it. The strength of Supernatural is that even the worse episodes have moments worthy of watching. In season six, there wasn’t a “Bugs” in the bunch. However, there were plenty of things that left me wondering.
Season six was supposed to be the season of noir. Or noir influence. Or noirish. Or I have no freaking idea what noir really means. I was open to the idea, for trying something different is always good. Taking on such a misunderstood genre and working it into the established tone of a long running TV show was a big risk though. I don’t think it payed off. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t worthwhile, but execution just fell short.
When it comes to noir, I always think of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train more than LA Confidential. That’s why I loved the episode “Unforgiven” so much. It’s the only episode this season that had the classic noirish feel that I was familiar with. It even showed flashbacks in black and white to enhance that authenticity. However, what sold “Unforgiven” for me wasn’t the well done throwback with all the proper camera angles and filmmaking tricks. It was a powerful emotional story. With each memory of what he had done, Sam Winchester slowly crumbled. Now, I have no idea if that creative choice is noir (it is if you watch DOA), but damn, it was one of the few times with heart all season. Heart is what used to dominate this show.
Season five ended on a very dark note, but I was bawling my eyes out of because of my intense sense of loss. Despite the criticisms by others, “Swan Song” was a very nail-biting and deeply emotional (as well as sentimental) episode. It was captivating entertainment. In season six, with the exception of one scene in the finale (Dean leaving the gun for Sam), I didn’t shed any tears over the stories told. Any attempts at noir stripped away the emotional element quite a bit too, something that’s been a signature for Supernatural.
I had a chance to ask Ben Edlund about this direction at Comic Con. He was aware that it was a very dark season. “That was a ride people had to go through…I think that Supernatural is about catharsis and vicarious torment.” He also did attribute noir to darkening the tone and that noir is not uplifting. I saw his point, but that’s not what I expected when I heard noir this time last year. Crying and sharing feelings by the Impala might have grown cliche by this point, but does increasing darkness in a character’s existence necessarily mean the emotional element wanes? Whether that was intentional or an unfortunate side effect I don’t know, but I missed the deeply emotional parts of the story telling in season six. However, my opinion is not a unanimous one, I’m aware of that. Mr. Edlund was also wise enough to remind me that the melancholy tones boil down to a person’s preference in tastes. If I’ve learned anything in this season long exercise, I hate noir. But that’s just me.
Obviously this was the tale of two seasons. The soulless half and the souled half. I know that’s a little narrow in the analysis since it shifts the focus to only one brother, but it really doesn’t. The impact on Dean was horrific. Having a soulless brother was far worse than living the the belief that his brother was dead. He may not have been completely happy, but Ben and Lisa at least provided some sort of security. Soulless Sam fed him to the vamps. Soulless Sam wouldn’t have a beer with him. Soulless Sam truly would have “sold him for a dollar if he needed the soda.” He was right, Sam was a replicant. Dean was willing to risk everything so he didn’t have to live with that thing anymore.
For the most part, soulless Sam was very well done. The first few episodes were ambiguous and shrouded in mystery. The lack of chemistry between the brothers, it was uncomfortable to watch (perhaps another noir thing) but it signaled to the viewers that something was very amiss. The idea quite frankly was brilliant.
Brilliance in ideas however don’t always amount to perfect execution. It just went on way too long. After a while, the characterization of soulless Sam became inconsistent. By “All Dogs Go To Heaven” it was such a wildly different Sam every week that the concept of being soulless lost it’s way. I don’t think we ever got a strong answer, what makes a soulless man? There probably isn’t an easy answer to that question, which makes the choice to tackle the concept that much more risky. I like risk though, as long as it’s done right.
If taking on a entirely different persona each adventure was the answer to being soulless, I’m disappointed. For me, character fatigue had set in by week 8. I get he wasn’t likable. I get he had no morals. I get that he and Dean had a frosty relationship. However TPTB messed with the core that sets this show apart from all others. That’s okay for a few weeks but half a season? It’s still really hard to watch those episodes one after another.
I applaud the producers though for remembering the idea still had mileage if done properly. Soulless Sam made a comeback in later episodes, “Unforgiven” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” Against his souled counterpart, the contrasts were fascinating. Deconstructing two parts of a whole is a mind boggling character study. It’s those scenes that justify the entire soulless plot line. That’s when I appreciated soulless Sam. His soul makes him both weak and strong. Soulless Sam would have never made the sacrifice Sam did for Dean in the finale. That takes heart. That is what this show is about and it was so refreshing to see it back by the finale.
Dean’s desire for a family has been often hinted since season three (perhaps sooner). I love how they chose to take this opportunity to explore that desire by giving him a shot. For the most part, this exploration was pitch perfect.
There’s nothing that divides the fans more than a woman for one of the boys. In this case, Dean gets to be father too. We know Dean’s one true soul mate is Sam (insert slash joke here) but it’s so refreshing to see him try this life. Of course it was doomed to fail. This is Supernatural for Christ’s sake. But Lisa and Ben were exactly what Dean needed. They helped him over his grief and trauma of losing Sam. He didn’t have to go through that ordeal alone. Of course he had trouble saying goodbye when the hunting life dragged him back in. He cared about them that deeply. I’m still debating whether he truly loved them. I think he loved the idea.
The entire Lisa and Ben arc was meant to do one major thing, to test Dean and his issues with guilt and overinflated sense of responsibility. He was overcome by plenty of both. He desperately wanted to be a good Dad, everything his father wasn’t, but his low self esteem painted himself as this monster that wasn’t good enough for them when he was hunting. He had to take a hard look at the part of himself he’s always had to accept but never liked. Talk about a fascinating character study. Just like Sam though, the results weren’t pretty. Staring at that un-liked and unwelcome side of who you are in the face isn’t very uplifting when that bad side wins. I think it’s that noir thing again.
Dean had to deal with all this and take on the task of saving his brother. No wonder he was reckless when it came to his personal safety. After Lisa and Ben, he had nothing to lose. However, the pure gold came from when they kept coming back into his life. His raw guilt over watching them suffer without him, even if they were better off in his mind, was so real and consistent with his character issues. Sure, asking Castiel to erase Lisa and Ben’s memories of him might not have been the best idea in the world (even hitting Sam where it hurts) but we understand why. Dean’s quiet devastation afterward tells us that was not done lightly. A conflicted Dean is always a captivating one.
Samuel Campbell. That is all. No, I take that back. Samuel’s head-scratching plot is actually one aspect of my harshest criticism of season six, the pacing. There are always plot holes in television writing (especially in a 22 episode season), there are always creative choices that people don’t agree with, but pacing is often what makes or breaks a season. Season six, outside of just getting started season one, has the worst pacing of the series. And this includes season three, which suffered greatly from the writer’s strike.
Season five was no gem either in terms of flow from episode to episode, but it did all build up logically to a conclusion. Season six was just a mess. First was the afore mentioned soulless Sam era, which really dragged the entire first half down hard. Sure there were enjoyable breaks, like the most outrageous “Clap Your Hands If You Believe” and the gut wrenching Dean character test in “Appointment In Samarra,” but several episodes in the attempt to get back to basics got too basic. Some of them became MOTW 101, a style that left long ago with season three (“Mannequin 3: The Reckoning,” “All Dogs Go To Heaven,” “My Heart Will Go On,” “You Can’t Handle The Truth”).
It all started with the grand (and heavily promoted) return of the Campbell family, especially Grandpa Samuel, who had been dead since 1973. Like red shirts they were picked off one by one, and Grandpa went from a revered family figure in the Campbell hunting history to a useless wimp that sold out his own grandsons to the King of Hell for no good reason. His entire story line went nowhere and a lot of time and wasted drama was invested in that empty plot. It boggles the mind that he was brought back at all. However, he did have one of the coolest deaths. That ALMOST made it worth it.
Another useless figure, the so called villain Mother of All. Now, I know that often with noir comes the concept of red herrings. There were plenty of those this season as they tried to hold true to the “trust no one” mantra. I’m okay with Mother of All turning out to be a red herring. It just would have helped if she was scary. That way I would have wiped my sweating forehead over her death and said “Whew, they dodged that bullet,” rather than shrugging with indifference saying, “Aww, pretty prom queen go bye bye.”
When the season dragged, Castiel was notably absent. Then suddenly his very large arc, the Civil War in Heaven, became front and center in the last six episodes. It felt very crammed and rushed by the time it played out in the finale. It also hampered what was up to that point a very powerful and moving finale. That whole drama should have had it’s own intense, nail biting episode. Maybe that could have been possible with one less ill conceived story about killer mannequins or cruise liners not sinking (that certainly would have spared me a Celine Dion rant).
The show also continued with the theme of killing off all the characters that aren’t Sam, Dean, or Bobby. It really got old last year when Gabriel was killed, and it was still really hard to see the body count pile up. Sure Samuel was already dead so he didn’t count but Rufus? Balthazar, who was a delightful and fun addition to this overly drab season? Again we as fans lose fan favorites for no strong reason. At least Ellen and Jo went out swinging. Now it looks like that Castiel might be lost forever, but we’ll pass that issue onto season seven. We’ll need something to gripe about there.
Really, I Liked It
It wasn’t all bad stuff. To be honest, I didn’t hate season six. I didn’t love it, but it definitely had entertainment value and I do admire the producers for at least trying to go outside of the box.
For one, season six continued to deliver episodes that set itself apart. A show with a loyal, frenzied fan base like Supernatural tends not to be a critical darling. When it comes to uniqueness though, Supernatural thrives in the buzz department from all circles, especially with its comedy episodes. Namely, comedic meta episodes. This show has made a name for itself by doing far more than just tearing down the fourth wall. They tear it down, mock it’s tattered remains and then stomp on it for fun.
NO episode in any series will get more ballsy than “The French Mistake.” We’ve done plenty of reviews on that episode and I could go on for days about they ended up taking just some parts of the current reality, enough to mock themselves, yet still made it different enough where it didn’t hit too close to home. It never got uncomfortable. Uncomfortable? It was outright hilarious. Genius. Brilliant. Absolutely the craziest damn thing ever. It alone reminded me why love this show.
Then there are the love letters to the fans. There isn’t a better one than “Frontierland.” Maybe that was more of a love letter to the lead actors, who always wanted to do a Western, but if they’re happy, we’re ecstatic. They were like little boys dressing up at Halloween. It was something we all sorely needed to see after the depressing events that happened to them this season.
However, one episode stood apart from not only the rest this season, but all other seasons as well. This episode actually did get the attention from critics for its top notch story telling, directing, and acting at it’s absolute finest. “The Man Who Would Be King,” while not an overwhelming fan favorite, is truly a complete masterpiece in television series drama. It does help once in a while to get such attention in mainstream ways.
Is The Inner Fan Girl Happy?
Joss Whedon once said “Don’t give people what they want, give them what they need.” Of course Joss Whedon had another quote. “Remember to always be yourself, unless you suck.” Nah, I joke. That’s the struggle for any TV writer. They need to evolve the characters, especially in the sixth season, but they can’t cross too much of a line where they alienate viewers. I think in the first half of the season they did cross that line a little, but managed to pull it back in time.
There were still moments that got my heart stopping. I couldn’t pry my jaw off the floor at the end of both “Live Free and Twihard” and “You Can’t Handle The Truth.” Even if the episodes themselves were uneven, both had very shocking parts to them. I was inconsolable at the end of “Unforgiven,” couldn’t stop smiling at the end of the very charming “Weekend at Bobby’s” and I was outright rolling on the floor at the end of “Mommy Dearest” thanks to a perfectly timed jukebox running with an episode long inside joke.
The producers, even in small bits, did take the show into new territory. Sam and Dean actually left the country this year. Three times! They ran with the golden opportunities in these settings, like cramming two very large guys into a small European subcompact and having loads of fun with a strategically placed symbols of a maple leaf. “Smoke on The Water” FINALLY make the classic rock playlist, and it played during one of the most awesome sequences ever. Dean Winchester in full on cowboy gear? An un-named section of my wardrobe exploded over that.
Jim Beaver and Misha Collins continued to have strong performances. This was the best season ever for Bobby in my mind. He was in more episodes than ever, we got to see him explore past relationships with former hunting mentor/partner Rufus and his romance with Dr. Visyak, and he more than once tried to step out of the shadow of the boys and their heartaches. He put Dean into focus when Sam wasn’t acting right, and again when they had higher priorities while Sam was out of commission. He was completely awesome when attacked by “RoboSam,” proving that this old “paranoid bastard” is indeed prepared for anything.
The Castiel plot may have been clunky overall, but Misha Collins more than delivered when his time came on the camera. There was his Emmy worthy performance in “The Man Who Would Be King,” in which Castiel’s side of the story about his partnership with Crowley was revealed. His abandonment from not only Dean, Sam and Bobby but God as well was absolutely crushing to watch, pushing him in a direction of nothing to lose in going forward with his plan. I personally think though Misha’s most memorable outing is with “The French Mistake.” Aside from being a goofy serial tweeter, who else could pull off the perfect sissy, crying when getting murdered by an angel assassin while wearing the ugliest sweater ever? “The scary man killed the attractive crying man…” Only on this show is that funny.
But the best parts came from Jensen and Jared themselves, naturally. Man were these guys challenged this season. Considering they had this instant chemistry from the second they were on screen together in season one, how do you go and turn that off for half a season? We know from the interviews and cons these guys have done since then it was very difficult. They pulled it off very well, even though it was as hard for us to watch as them to act it out. Jared especially had to take a character that he was familiar with for five seasons and run with a whole new one. Just the cold empty stare alone gave me chills! He did an amazing job, even when the writing wasn’t the finest.
Once that was done though, there were the iconic brotherly moments, the ones that keep fans squealing for years. The desperate and thankful hug at the beginning of “Like A Virgin,” the goofy fun over maxing out credit cards in Jared’s huge mansion in “The French Mistake” (not to mention the howlingly outrageous vanity art), and Dean’s gut-wrenching vigil over a comatose Sam in “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”
Just like with other seasons, I’ve picked apart season six to death and I’m ready to move on. I’m not bitter about season six and it wouldn’t matter if I was, because it’s over. Onward and upward the geeks always say. I am going into season seven with a few reservations (aka what they’ve done to poor Castiel) but that won’t prevent me from watching. I’ve learned to trust the creative vision for at least I know its earnest. As long as the brothers are in it together, I’m happy.