During the first few years of Supernatural, Kripke and Co. slowly crafted the mythology relating to demons, layer by layer. We, along with Sam and Dean, learned about the (mostly) black eyes, the black smoke, the use of holy water, demon traps, and exorcisms against demons, etc. Much of the lore about demons still remains shrouded in mystery, and for good reason. The more the writers reveal about demons, the more they constrain themselves in crafting future episodes, so they dole out new lore sparingly. The showrunners know that their well-informed, devoted fans do not take lightly any violations of canon: while minor lapses in canon generally are tolerated in the interests of good storytelling, major violations provoke a firestorm of criticism (reapers, anyone?).
During the Kripke era, the writers also portrayed the demons quite consistently in terms of their actual nature. For one thing, demons were FUNNY! They could deliver a vicious one-liner like nobody's business. Kripke himself said, “Nothing gives me more pleasure than writing one of the demons, because the demons can be so cruel and so funny.” But more importantly, demons were menacing. Yellow Eyes, Alastair and Lilith, in all of their various incarnations, were cruel, evil beings without an ounce of empathy for humans, and Sam and Dean feared them with good reason. Whenever one of those three appeared in an episode, you were guaranteed electrifying scenes of great tension, punctuated by unexpected bursts of humor. Lilith was particularly chilling and unsettling when embodied in a cute 10 year old girl. Her tone and the look on her face when she said “don't you love me anymore Grandpa?” was Emmy worthy. Even the minor demons exuded an air of pure evil.
This portrayal of demons did have some exceptions, however. Casey, the female demon in "Sin City", developed such a bond with Dean that she didn't want her demon lover to kill him. Now, I'm certainly not immune to Dean's charms, but the idea that a few hours in his company was enough to melt the heart of a demon flew in the face of every prior depiction of demons. While apparently demons can have feelings for other demons, like Yellow Eyes for his children Meg and Tom, and Casey for her lover, it seemed highly out of character that they would form attachments with humans. Ruby explained to Dean in "Malleus Maleficarum" that demons are created when human souls are tortured in hell for centuries until all of their humanity is stripped away. This process would certainly seem to preclude any lingering warm, fuzzy feelings towards humans.
Ruby herself seemed to deviate from the typical portrayal of demons, because of her desire to help the Winchesters. Ultimately, her actions made sense as part of her plan to manipulate Sam into killing Lilith. And Ruby 1, at least, acted like a classic demon. She didn't display any warmth or friendliness towards Sam and Dean, and who can forget her yelling at Dean in "No Rest For the Wicked" that she wanted to see the flesh sizzle from his bones?
Ruby 2 was a different story, however, because she seemed to have feelings for Sam. This made some sense as a ploy to earn Sam's trust to the point that he would agree to drink her blood. But even after her plan came to fruition with Lilith's death and Lucifer's rising, she still seemed to care for Sam. I thought Cortese played Ruby very inconsistently, although maybe that was the result of writer or director choices. Sometimes she seemed demony, for lack of a better word, and I enjoyed her portrayal. Often, however, she appeared too human and had little of that air of menace and evil that characterized other demons.
Finally, we come to the two biggest outliers among the demons- Meg and Crowley. Meg initially fit the demon personality profile to a T. She was devious, manipulative and pure evil. Oh, and hilarious. I loved Nicki Aycox's performance. Jared's version of Meg in "Born Under A Bad Sign" was also wonderfully evil.
Rachel Miner's original portrayal of Meg had a very different tone- she seemed giddier than Aycox's Meg, and I felt lukewarm about her take on Meg. I found that I enjoyed her performance more when I stopped comparing her to Aycox. She took a typical demon delight in hurting/killing Sam and Dean and their allies, until the writers took a sharp turn with her character in Season 6 and introduced the Meg/Cas love connection. This twist seemed inconsistent with every previous depiction of angels and demons and annoyed me no end. By Meg's final appearance in Season 8, she was essentially a Winchester ally and seemed a demon in name only: she literally died to protect the brothers. While I enjoyed parts of her alliance with the Winchesters, she seemed a very different sort of beast than other demons, and even than earlier Meg.
Last, but certainly not least, there's Crowley. From his first appearance on Supernatural Crowley seemed different than any other demon. While he had the requisite callousness and lack of empathy towards humans, he didn't seem to feel the same animus towards them demonstrated by Yellow Eyes, Alastair, Lilith, and virtually every other demon. Interestingly, his eyes have never been shown to change color. As he himself has stated on a number of occasions, he's a businessman, and that's how he usually conducts himself. Granted, his business consists of procuring souls for hell, but still. He is pragmatic, smart, devious and extremely funny. His initial alliance with the Winchesters was motivated purely by self-preservation, and the only time he acted even slightly OOC in Seasons 5-8 was when he gave Bobby his legs back, unasked, seemingly out of the goodness of his heart. Arguably, Crowley's action was meant to ensure that Sam had Bobby's help in containing the Croatoan virus, but it struck me as odd and contradictory of his demon nature.
And now to the main point of my article: I believe Gamble made a huge error when she elevated Crowley to King of Hell. I know TPTB wanted to keep Crowley around because he is so damn entertaining and Sheppard is fantastic, but he should have been kept on the show as an occasional ally of the Winchesters, helping them whenever it suited his purposes, but also willing to work against them. While Crowley certainly had the ambition to become King, he lacked the gravitas and the aura of menace and PURE EVIL that other powerful demons like Yellow Eyes exhibited in spades. Crowley has simply never been truly scary. The closest he came was in Season 8 when he attempted to kill/killed the Winchesters, Kevin, Jody, and everyone the boys had saved.
For the most part I really liked Season 8 and I enjoyed Sheppard's deliciously vicious Crowley. But his appearance and actions didn't come close to inspiring the dread and excitement I felt during every appearance of Yellow Eyes and Alastair on the show. What's worse is that the depiction of demons has deteriorated even further since then. On the first 6 seasons, even run-of-the-mill demons were menacing and funny: from the very first demon in "Phantom Traveler" to the demons in "Croatoan", "Malleus Malefacarum", "Jus in Bello"- the list goes on and on. Virtually every demon was scary to the Winchesters and to us. Now, almost all of Crowley's underlings are portrayed as dumb, humorless sycophants. Crowley conducts demon board meetings! And he has even had a demon butler and a demon masseuse, for crap's sake! Sam and Dean routinely and easily overpower “stunt demon number three” and they no longer worry much about demons. Why worry when they're probably occupied attending meetings or seeing to the King's clothing?
Over the past few seasons, only Abaddon could hold a candle to the demons of yore. She was a real throwback, evil and vicious to the core, and also pretty darn funny. I loved her and Alaina Huffman's portrayal of her.
I would have infinitely preferred if Abaddon had ascended the throne of hell as the new “big bad,” and Crowley had been kept around in the role he had in Season 5- as a manipulative, untrustworthy demon who helped the boys when their interests coincided with his. Instead, we've been subjected to the increasingly ridiculous evolution of Crowley's character: from “please be my friend, Sam” Crowley, to crybaby Crowley, to “please don't leave me, Dean” Crowley, to “you never loved me, mommy” Crowley.
This arc would have been fine if the idea had been to have a mostly human (but still snarky, callous, and hilarious) Crowley aiding the boys in their fight against Abaddon through his vast knowledge of all things supernatural. That would have made for interesting storytelling and a good use of Sheppard's talents. Sadly, that is not the route the writers went with Crowley.
The writers have also watered down the entire concept of hell. The current depiction of hell, or wherever it is that Crowley conducts his business now (is that hell or earth?), seems like a child's imagining. The only truly effective rendering of hell on SPN was on "No Rest For The Wicked" - that brief glimpse of Dean suspended on hooks against that eerie background was horrifying.
The next version of hell, in Season 6, was just silly. Sure, I chuckled at Crowley's innovation of organizing hell into an eternal line, but that depiction completely undermined the idea that the horrors of hell are beyond imagining and will ultimately strip away a soul's humanity. Crowley's version of hell must have slowed the demon conversion time frame considerably! I hate lines as much as the next person, but choosing between eternal lines and an eternity of meat hooks and flames is a no-brainer.
I actually didn't think the depiction of hell in "Taxi Driver" was THAT bad, other than Bobby's “torture” consisting of repeated visits from fake Sams and Deans-really?!!!. What a failure of imagination by the writers. Bobby had been in hell for about 2 years, which is 240 hell years, but he didn't seem much worse for wear. So the demon conversion rate probably was not appreciably faster than in the Season 6 hell. Bottom line, hell is supposed to be so inexpressibly horrible that even demons fear it. Since any attempt to depict such a place will almost inevitably fall short, it's better to not even try.
Even if Crowley had been a suitably terrifying King of Hell, it would have been difficult to sustain that effect over the long haul. One reason Alastair made such a big impact each time he appeared onscreen is that he was used sparingly- he was only in a few episodes. The same holds true for Yellow Eyes and Lilith. Familiarity really does breed contempt, and if any of those three had appeared in as many episodes as Crowley has, the impact on the boys and on us would have diminished over time. In fact, the most prominent emotion the boys display each time they encounter Crowley IS contempt.
Supernatural seems like a very different world now-the lack of a worthy demon adversary has created a real vacuum and partly explains why the show feels so flat and unexciting lately. Cain was the most formidable, and the only interesting, demon the boys have confronted this year, but that was only for one episode. (I'm not addressing the topic of Demon Dean, as that is a whole separate issue.) Even if the writers now have Crowley go dark, I think it's too late. The image of Crowley staring forlornly at the goofy photo of him and Dean is forever burned into my retinas, and I can never again take him seriously as the “big bad.” I hate to say it, but it's time for Sam and Dean to kill Crowley. He has tortured or killed or tried to kill the boys and their friends on so many occasions that it has become an absurdity that they keep letting him off the hook. How many times has one of the brothers said to Crowley words to the effect of “the next time I see you I'll kill you”? It's been more than a few times, and I don't know how the Js can utter those lines with straight faces anymore. The writers' treatment of Crowley lately has been a travesty. I just don't see how they can transition from pathetic, maudlin Crowley back to a demon who inspires dread in humans and demons alike- particularly when he never was all that terrifying. It's time for a new” big bad” demon, one more reminiscent of Yellow Eyes, Alastair or Lilith. To me, the show has been floundering for awhile, and the introduction of a new power who dethrones Crowley could jump start an interesting new direction for the show. Especially if Crowley goes out in his trademark style. Sure, I'd miss him, at least the earlier incarnations of him, but if the show can survive without Bobby, it can certainly survive without Crowley.
Editor's Note: I'd like to thank Samanddean10 for this great review of how Supernatural has presented demons throughout its ten years. Now it's time to hear from you! What have you thought of Supernatural's demons lately? Do you think the demons in general are going soft? Given Crowley's change of heart in "Inside Man", do you think he's returning to his former scary self? Do you have a "favorite" bad guy...or gal? How much do you think the demons contribute to the overall mood/feeling/atmosphere of Supernatural?