I can easily recall the excitement I felt about Supernatural Season 10 in the early fall of last year. Between Demon Dean, Sam going dark, and the possibilities for Crowley and Castiel, I was very eager for the season premiere. After three excellent episodes, however, that excitement began to wane. And then it waned some more. And now, as the second half of the season is about to begin, I find myself – well, somewhat unenthused. So what happened? As Jeremy Carver previewed in the summer, the stories started out very personal this year. Demon Dean was front and center, with Sam on his trail, determined to save his brother. It was all good. But then, shortly after episode three, Sam and Dean Winchester went missing.
We knew early on (again, from Jeremy Carver) that this season would showcase more of an ensemble cast. As Jared and Jensen have lightened their workload, Misha Collins and Mark Sheppard’s characters have been shown in more prominent scenes. In addition, guest stars have come in for stand-alone episodes and have gotten increasingly more screen time.
Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this year’s format. I understand Jared and Jensen’s schedules are what they are, and that’s not likely to change. And Misha and Mark are both talented actors who have added more layers to the story of Supernatural since Seasons Four and Five, respectively. Furthermore, guest stars have populated the stand-alone episodes since the beginning of the series. The problem is, so much time is spent with Castiel, Crowley, and various one-off (or recurring) characters that the brothers haven’t had much to do this season – at least not in front of us.
As much as I might enjoy seeing the other characters, my main interest still lies with the Winchesters. But more and more, we see less and less of the brothers in a given episode. And when the other characters’ stories don’t relate back to Sam and Dean, or don’t at least illuminate some aspect of their relationship or individual states of mind, then my level of investment goes down. And when none of the plotlines of any of the players seem connected to any overarching storyline, then things seem really disjointed, and it’s easy to detach from the narrative. So instead of being riveted to my screen for 42 minutes, I find myself watching while simultaneously folding laundry, checking email, and whipping up a batch of cookies. I might get a lot accomplished, but it’s just not as much fun.
If you look at earlier seasons – and I know, as soon as I bring up this topic, the first thing you might think is “oh boy, one of those fans who can’t get past pining away for the glory days of Supernatural, like the 40 year old former star athlete who relives his high school football days over and over. But the early seasons of Supernatural were such a good template for how to tell a story effectively. Sure, there may have been canon inconsistencies, or plotlines that were dropped, but the story always linked back to the Winchesters (and later Castiel) coherently, and it felt like things were consistently going somewhere.
With stand-alone episodes in earlier seasons, no matter the person- in-peril or character of the week, they always played a part in shedding light on Sam and Dean’s mental and emotional states. At the very least, the brothers were closely connected with the action in a given episode. In 1.12 “Faith,” Layla’s deep desire to be healed was completely intertwined with the aftermath of Dean’s healing, and his subsequent guilt about it. In 2.12 “Nightshifter,” Sam and Dean were smack dab in the middle of the action with Ronald Resnik in the bank; That episode also saw the manhunt for the Winchesters deepen, and the loss of Resnik would come back to haunt the brothers (literally) in Season Four. In 4.4, “Metamorphosis,” as Sam and Dean investigate a rugaru, the brothers have some of the most powerful exchanges of the series regarding Sam’s “curse.” Obviously I could go on and on, but needless to say, these monster of the week episodes didn’t take the spotlight off of Sam and Dean, but often shined it brighter on them.
This year, in “Paper Moon,” Kate the werewolf learns her sister is lost to her, and while there may be parallels to the Winchesters, (there always are), her story doesn’t have much to do with Sam and Dean’s. In “Hibbing 911” Jody and Donna bond over a sheriff’s retreat, with Sam and Dean only later getting in on the action by (easily) getting captured by the vampires. But Donna and Jody’s struggles don’t directly tie into Sam and Dean’s. In essence, these people don’t shed light on anything about the Winchesters. Maybe something happens at the end of the episode concerning Sam and Dean – Dean has his first kill after being cured, or the MOC takes greater hold on Dean, but for the most part, the one-off (or recurring) characters’ stories are their own. And what’s worse, these stories, often substituting drama with campiness, are usually just not compelling enough to stand on their own without the help of the Winchesters.
Regarding Castiel and Crowley, their current struggles have nothing to do with Sam and Dean. Before, when Crowley wanted something, like alpha monsters or the demon tablet, the brothers were at odds with him over it. Just last season Crowley was intricately connected with Dean and the MOC. Now Crowley isn’t doing anything with the Winchesters – or anyone else, come to think of it. He sits around in a warehouse-looking building and talks about his witch mother. For Rowena’s part, she briefly interacted with the Winchesters, but seems to spend most of her time these days trading quips with Crowley.
Castiel was going after rogue angels with Hannah, but now he’s trying to help the daughter of his old vessel. That isn’t really linked to the Winchesters. They may all interact, but just because Cas calls Sam and Dean to “help” him with Claire doesn’t mean she – or he- is connected to the brothers. That plotline may have gotten us from point A to point B to allow Dean to go crazy on some (conveniently) low life human beings, but were Sam and Dean really needed on this case?
Comfort TV vs. Compelling TV:
Now, with all my complaining, the “why don’t you just stop watching?” question might come into your mind. But I’ll probably always watch the show. I love to watch Jensen and Jared on my screen every week (even though I’m watching them a lot less on my screen in each episode). And the show has been a part of my TV viewing life for many years. Reliable. Familiar. It reminds me of my chicken and rice casserole. I make it a lot. It’s easy, it’s quick, and it fits the bill on an average night. But maybe there’s times I would like something with more – substance and flavor, like chicken cordon bleu with sun dried tomato polenta (which I’ve never made in my life, but you get my point).
Maybe I should just be happy with what I’ve got in Supernatural this year. Sam is shown to be worried about Dean. The brothers aren’t fighting. There’s the MOC storyline – but none of that seems front and center anyway. Instead, Crowley’s broken heart, Castiel’s guilt, and one-off character dilemmas are. And let’s face it, watching unknown characters face off in a living game of Clue while Sam and Dean fend off cougars might be mildly entertaining, but compelling? Instead of just settling with Supernatural, it would be nice to have a feeling of anticipation over it – an “I can’t wait to see what they’re going to come up with next” kind of feeling. Not that every single episode has to be like that, but the season should have that kind of general feel to it. Supernatural shouldn’t always leave a chicken and rice casserole aftertaste.
The Slow Build up – What Exactly are our Characters Doing?
As I wrote earlier, we knew this season would have a slower build up, focusing on topics personal to our major players. But if this season is about “I am who I am,” then shouldn’t the characters be showing us something about who they are? Dean was a demon, and he’s still affected by the MOC. We know he doesn’t want to be. But beyond that, do we know anything else about these characters’ wants or their realizations about themselves?
Take Sam, for instance. We know he was determined to save his brother, using a not so nice guy to summon a demon, and later torturing that demon. But has that behavior (which doesn’t seem all that dark, by the way) had any ramifications? Has Sam explored who he is? In fact, has he said or done much of anything about – well, anything?
Has Crowley explored who he is? We know he misses his “friendship” with Dean, but is he trying to accomplish anything as King of Hell? Castiel is trying to make amends to the family of his vessel (on many levels, this and the MOC plotlines have the most potential thus far). But now that Cas has involved himself in Claire’s life, what happens next?
What are Dean, Sam, Crowley, and Castiel’s stories? What is it they actually want? Or perhaps more accurately, what are they doing about what they want? Every character, at some point, has to try and act on what he or she wants – which will then form the basis of his or her story. But from what I can see, Dean doesn’t want the MOC any longer, Sam wants Dean to be ok, Crowley wants his mother’s love, and Castiel wants to be helpful. Those aren’t really stories, though, are they?
Finding Sam and Dean Winchester (and Company):
So what is the solution for this season? I’m not sure. As we move into the second half, a big bad might surface, or a quest may reveal itself. Yet, even if it does, where will Sam and Dean fit in? Because it would be nice to see them emerge in their own story. And I’m not saying every aspect of every plotline has to revolve around the brothers. But separate plotlines and other character exploration should flow in in some way, back to the Winchesters.
At the very least, put Sam and Dean (even if they’re with others) in the middle of the action. If they’re going to be in fewer scenes, then make every second they’re on screen count. And let their actions show us something about who these characters are. In fact, let everyone’s actions reflect their motivations. If we’re exploring “you are who you are” than more needs to happen. From mythology to stand alone episodes, in big actions and small ones, everything has potential to show us more about who the major players are becoming, or have already become.
And it needs to be said, it wouldn’t hurt to up the stakes a little. We know Sam and Dean won’t be killed (at least permanently) by hippie vampires, so the significant stuff has to come from somewhere else. For example, how would it look going into the second half of this season if instead of killing Randy, Dean was responsible for killing an innocent? Even if the world isn’t at stake this year, something needs to be. Think of it as a little chicken cordon bleu to make the chicken and rice go down easier.
Ultimately, I don’t know what the rest of the season holds of course, beyond a few episode titles. All of this could come together beautifully. All I really know is, wherever the road leads, Sam and Dean should be right in the middle of it.