I’ve given myself a few days to reflect on “Soul Survivor” and a second viewing. I had to, because my initial impression was so negative. Well, it still is. Not everything, of course. Jensen Ackles’ direction was stellar, particularly the stalking scene but really the entire episode. What interest I had in “Soul Survivor” arose from his directing and what the actors brought, which as usual was their A game. But despite all of that going for the episode, nothing trumps really poor writing.
I know many viewers had a very different reaction to “Soul Survivor,” so I’m going to own right at the start that this is my personal reaction to the story, based on my interpretation of what drives this show. To me, “Soul Survivor” brings into focus all the troubling aspects of the show I’ve noticed since Jeremy Carver took the reins.
I’ll begin with the unsuccessful move to downplay the centrality of the brothers’ story and adding other narratives. I know why the writers are developing the angel and demon story lines. Jared and Jensen do not want to work the punishing hours of the early years of the series. To keep the show going, compromises had to be made in order to give them more time off. In season 9, the writers tried out Cas as more of a lead character, testing to see if audiences would care about what he cared about, separately from the boys. The answer was a resounding no.
The angel war story line turned out to be a crashing bore, so anemic the leader of one angel faction was killed off screen and hardly anyone noticed, since most people had trouble remembering his name (Malachi in case the name is still elusive). The other faction leader Bart was so far from a Zachariah or even a Uriel it was painful.
Cas’s human journey was more interesting than the struggle for power, if often oddly handled (why would he not know what a toothbrush was, after 10 years of dropping into Winchester hotel rooms?). But the political machinations, including Metatron’s schemes by the end, failed to grip. The angels in these writers’ hands have no gravitas, no menace, no heart . . . I just do not want to watch them on my screen.
The exceptions were Cas and Gadreel and that’s because they had a direct connection to the Winchesters. Sam and Dean function as the leads of the story because we care about what they care about. So it’s a problem when Cas and Crowley head off into their own narratives, because unless those stories directly involve the Winchesters, I don’t care. I love both, but they are supporting characters in the Winchesters’ story. Crowley with Dean = fun. Crowley as a bureaucrat in Hell = unnecessary clutter in the narrative. And the last thing we need is for the demons in the story to get as toothless and boring as the angels.
Trying to run three stories in one episode has so far been a jarring experience rather than a layered and complex one. Last week’s “Reichenbach” was much better because we really only had two stories to track, so both were better explored. This week, we were back to switching abruptly between three narratives, only one of which I wanted to watch. And that dampened the energy surrounding Dean’s cure.
I was reminded of “Bloodlines,” which is not a good thing. The spin off had many issues, but one glaring problem was Sam and Dean were hardly in the show but were still more interesting than the main actors. I’d hate to see Supernatural basically have its own internal spin offs, forcing me to sit through 2/3 of material I’m not interested in to get to the supposedly main story line of Sam and Dean. I would have thought a story point as huge as Sam trying to cure Dean of demonhood and heal their rift would get a lot of focus. Instead, that point had to fight for space with an angel road trip and a visit to Hell’s version of waiting in line.
I’m all for Crowley still feeling the effects of human blood and actually caring about Dean. But I thought it was over the top to show him pining. I also think it’s a very bad idea to actually show Hell. It loses more of its sense of evil and menace with every scene.
And the scenes with Hannah and Cas not only slowed down the narrative, there seemed little point to the flirtation subplot unless it was specifically to code Cas’s feelings for Dean as romantic when he friendzones Hannah. The show has been known to tease this aspect and then back away with a laugh, a strategy which has not paid off in the past and I doubt will pay off in the future.
Cas was much more effective in his scenes in the bunker. He was finally badass Cas instead of bumbling Cas, which I appreciated. But I didn’t think it helped Sam’s arc at all to need to be rescued from Dean by Cas.
Sam has never been able to save Dean in the past, and if the reason we went through the pain of last year’s fights between Sam and Dean was to make their relationship more even, giving him the save so he is less the “little brother” would have been nice. I loved how intensely Sam was focused on saving his brother. Jared sold his pain and his determination. Demon Dean knew how exactly where to hit Sam, and we saw how the words hurt. I loved that Sam knew he had to keep going.
What I didn’t love is that the final cure had little to do with Sam’s feelings about Dean or the strength of their bond. Giving the syringes of blood was a technical procedure, and one anyone could do. Crowley could have done it. And having Sam give someone else’s blood robbed those scenes of the emotional resonance and intimacy of Sam’s scenes with Crowley in “Sacrifice.” Crowley and Sam actually impacted each other as the demon struggled with growing humanity.
But not Dean. For some reason, even when Dean was so human he could walk out of devil’s traps, he was still completely demonized. There was more Dean than demon in him, yet he was completely prepared to kill Sam to avoid taking up his old life. And Sam, despite all his focus and need to save his brother, had no idea how to reach him. It took Cas to point out to him Dean is running from the pain of a Winchester’s life, full of personal loss even when they win the big picture fights.
Why would anyone need to explain to Sam about the pain of all that loss or the crushing weight of responsibility he has borne as much as Dean? Did he not do his own version of walking away when he left Kevin with Crowley and said someone else could take on the bad guys; it didn’t have to be him? Sam has been the one to walk along Dean’s side as they both fight and love and lose and suffer. Who should have a better understanding than Sam of what is driving Dean? And shouldn’t that understanding, more than administering vials of blood, be the reason Sam and not just anyone is able to save Dean?
Instead, Sam failed to reach Dean. Cas swooped in for the save, and then the two of them calmly administered the rest of the injections until Dean was fully human. What an anti-climax. What a poor pay off for the harsh words and fractured brotherhood of last season. Not only did we not see the bond able to ground Dean, to my eyes we saw the brothers break even further apart. At this point, they now have to deal with the fact that fratricidal Dean was much more Dean than demon, and that Sam had little understanding of his brother and could not reach him, unlike the reverse situation in “Swan Song.”
Given that really Cas got this save, not Sam, it wasn’t surprising the emotional wrap up scene went to Cas and Dean, not Sam and Dean. There was nothing about the nature of the “save” that would lead to some sort of button scene between the boys. My issue isn’t that Cas and Dean’s scene didn’t work, because it did, but that the cure was so impersonal and emotionally flat, there was no driving need for any kind of emotional touch point scene between the boys. No doubt we’ll get a broment next week, but not something that organically arises out of intense emotions as a result of the cure, which I think the story needed. I didn’t need everything wrapped up in a bow, and I’m sure there is more to come, but I needed something that dealt with the emotions of this episode.
I’m at a really difficult time in my relationship with the show. I feel like the central premise is either changing or getting such short shrift the story is unconvincing. It’s bad enough I can no longer trust the established lore of the show. Not to be able to believe in Sam and Dean’s bond could be a deal breaker for me.
Photos courtesy of homeofthenutty.com