I swore after last week's rant, I was going to be a bit more fair with "Defending Your Life." Like last week, this was a very mediocre episode, but without the polarizing scene that had you screaming at your TV and then taking your frustration to the internet. However, this week has once again pointed out a very glaring problem with the writing that I can't overlook anymore. I'll address that throughout this review, but in the meantime, let's get to some episode details.
One obvious weak point of "Defending Your Life" was the Monster of The Week story. As happens from time to time on Supernatural, TPTB cannot get both the character development and the MOTW to work well together. That blend clearly failed here. Sure, it was nice to see Sam and Dean on a traditional case again, and lord knows they needed it after all the crap they had been through lately, but ugh, Osiris was not a great character.
Osiris wasn't creepy, or menacing, or even interesting. He certainly didn't have the presence that you would expect from an Egyptian God. Some of you may know, I was a little cheeky when the preview photos came out for this episode and on our Spoiler Page compared this scenario to the Star Trek The Next Generation pilot episode, "Encounter at Far Point." I even slipped a couple of pictures of Q into our photo gallery for fun. Turns out the two weren't alike at all. Q was far more compelling a character and I give the win to Star Trek.
The trial scene was a terrible mess. As Osiris was declaring Dean guilty, I sent my virtual TV brick soaring through my flat screen. That was a bad on so many levels. I'm not damned good with the principles of law, but I've watched enough trials on TV where they run way smoother than that. They're gripping, they're exciting, they're "grabbing onto something until your knuckles turn white" dramatic. This was a bunch of crap.
Now, keep in mind, I'm not blasting the character studies or revelations. Some good things did come out of that scene. I'm just talking about the execution of the scene from beginning to end. For one, it was clunky as Hell. It didn't have any flow in the dialogue, and just seemed random at times. My big nitpick though is a major opportunity was blown.
It would of have been way better if Amy was the actual third witness. That bombshell at that moment would have been superb! She comes on the stand, Sam suddenly isn't so defensive of this brother anymore, it all could have played out right there. It was the perfect setting! The fact that it didn't happen must be because a) the show didn't want to pay for another Jewel Staite appearance or b) they want to drag this painful (and forced) drama through a few more episodes because they need to get the most bang for their brotherly drama buck.
That was wow factor that was missing. Dean's death sentence at the hand of Amy (Jo made no sense, she wasn't the vindictive "you killed me" ghost) is so much more logical. I did love the scene between Jo and Dean, but that could have happened while he was waiting for Amy to come get him. Jo and Dean's talk was a very important scene, and one of the few moments in this episode that actually worked. Forget worked, the scene was goregous. It reminded me how much chemistry these two had, and that I'm still pissed that Kripke killed her and Ellen off. Dean really let his vulnerabilities show here, and I really hope that letting these issues surface will help. He needed to talk about this with someone, dead or alive.
Character study wise, the episode did okay. Some important issues were raised, but it just didn't dig deep enough. Dean didn't find much joy in the case and was ready to walk away as soon as it involved people being judged. He was quick to judge those being condemned, even though they had paid their dues and earned redemption. Their actions weren't enough for their souls to escape the guilt, which Dean could relate. Everything he's done hasn't helped with his. Dean was clearly judging himself and it wasn't pretty. I'm sure all surfaced so easily too because of what he did to Amy.
Speaking of which, Sam just fights off another troubling hallucination, and then takes time shortly after that while they're in FBI mode ready to investigate a case to mention Amy? To thank Dean? Ugh, more contrived drama meant to remind us about an act that we possibly couldn't forget. We don't need reminders writers. We do watch every week. Plus, they did have all that in the "Then" segment.
I have to admit, I'm really damned impressed with Sam. In Bardicvoice's most recent meta on "The Girl Next Door," she reminded us that while Dean was a torturer in Hell, something that has probably manifested his view of himself as a monster, Sam was a pure victim. That couldn't be more obvious than in this episode. Dean is carrying a lot of guilt for others he cannot let go, while Sam believes he paid for all that guilt in Hell. Turns out being a victim is a soul cleansing experience. You know, that actually makes sense to me.
I do wonder if there are those that criticize that Sam is a little too well adjusted for all he's been through, but I can't do it. The hallucinations are still keeping it real for him and I'm hoping that's going to lead to more than just a palm clutch every week. If it doesn't well, as you're about to read, I'll just add that to the growing list of writing inconsistencies. Otherwise, he has two choices. Carry on, or curl up and die. Sure, he could have gone the way of the raving mad lunatic in the mental institution, but that doesn't make for a good series about two brothers on the road, does it? I really doubt Sam's issues are over, but I get where being whole again has made him stronger.
Sam did an awesome job defending his brother, but it was the secret of Amy that sunk Dean. So why did Jo have to kill him? She tried to defend him too. Right, I already covered that. The fact that Jo told Dean that her getting into hunting wasn't his fault and she would have done it anyway should be been a huge release for him. He had to hear that. I hope it is. That and the fact he saw Sam letting go. So then why is this secret still hovering over them? Because we need some more brotherly drama in episode 6? I'll watch it play out, but I still think there were some major missed opportunities here.
It is really nice to see Dean make some strides here, but he's got a long way to go. I'm fascinated that Sam was the second witness called, for it was important to show that Dean still feels huge guilt over dragging Sam back into this life. Sam had to remind him he didn't kill Jess and that circumstances dragged him back in, but at least Dean's guilt is very consistent over what we've seen over the years. It goes all the way back to "What is And What Should Never Be," when his ideal life was Sam having that dream life as a lawyer with Jess. Funny how even back then he saw himself as a low life that disappointed people. That still lingers today.
One problem I have comes from Sam. Why is he suddenly so concerned about Dean's drinking? Dean has been heavily drinking since the fourth season. He should be concerned, but why now? That little exchange over the AA chip just didn't sit right with me.
Another nitpick is Sam being caught by the rabbi while stealing the ram's horn. Was that meant to be funny? Was that another bit that ended up on the editing room floor? It was really awkward and how did Sam talk his way out of that one. It wasn't necessary. That little bit of time could have been used for so much more.
What happened to the writing?
I'm going to take some time to touch on a problem that has really bothered me last season and this with Supernatural. The writing. I've been doing The Vampire Diaries reviews lately too, and one thing that show is experiencing right now is a tightness and careful attention to the complex stories being woven in their writing. In other words, the writing is pitch perfect in every way. Supernatural used to be that way once, but it seems to have lost its way in season six and now the beginning of season seven. With each light, mediocre scripts like this one, it becomes harder to ignore.
For one, I'm still stinging how Castiel has become nothing but an afterthought. All that guilt in Dean, all that despair, and there's not one flash about the angel that has been a huge presence in his life the last three years? Whether you are or aren't a fan of Castiel, he's been too important in Dean's life in recent times to be ignored. If Dean can feel guilty about Jo, a death that he didn't cause, then why oh why isn't Castiel in that fold? I know, because there was only 42 minutes to tell the story, right? I'd agree if the story wasn't so light. This was a slow moving, not very dynamic, story with plenty of unnecessary time wasting moments. Castiel could have taken about ten seconds.
(Remember this guy?)
This is the prime example of writing that is no longer cohesive and trying to tie things together. It's gotten outright lazy if you ask me. For example, in this most recent episode of The Vampire Diaries, they managed to connect an important piece of information for one character in the midst of a very busy script all because she was looking at pictures on a cell phone. A detail that wasn't left hanging and didn't take a lot of time.
If they can do that, then how can something major like Castiel be overlooked? I've always theorized that they've run out of ways to make Castiel interesting and came up with a less than perfect plot to write him off. He didn't even get a proper goodbye. Ellen and Jo got way more of a farewell and they weren't on the show anywhere near as long. The sentimentality that once used to define this show has lost it's way. When that kind of heart isn't in the writing anymore, it stops being interesting. It stops being a show that I can't wait to watch every week.
I do wonder if Supernatural's new mantra for writing (or perhaps editing too) truly falls within Chuck's rant in "Swan Song." The fans are always going to bitch, there will always be loose threads, blah, blah. That was a cute line at the time, but if that's truly become a philosophy with the writing, then that's almost sacrilege to a team that once took these things seriously.
My dear friend Mo Ryan sent me something this week, a quote from another very brilliant writer who's show is hitting it's creative apex right now. Vince Gilligan, showrunner for "Breaking Bad," had this to say about characterization in a recent interview:
"And we always talk in the writers' room about "˜mysterious versus confusing.' Mystery is good; confusion is bad. Sometimes, if you squint, they can seem like one and the same, but they're really not at all. Confusion usually derives from a lack of internal logic. It derives from characters who suddenly stop behaving in recognizable ways. And mystery is just a lack of illumination. So we think a lot about mystery versus confusion, and we always strive for the former, not the latter."
Supernatural is not taking the time to differentiate between the two. Sure, I've read some great analysis this week on this site and others where Dean's actions with Amy's can be explained. I think those points are very correct. However, as a viewer for the first time (okay, the second and third too), Dean's actions made no freaking sense. They were out of the blue. The fact that I had to spend a week of my life on a fan site reading some very well, thought out metas going all the way back through the series history to trace to that point isn't right. I don't know, is this the show keeping me guessing or confusing me to frustration? If I really, really have to think that hard to get to that point in Dean's headspace, imagine what it means for the casual viewer? It means they're flipping to another channel.
The thing is, the first two scripts of the season were brilliant. I actually thought the show was finding it's stride again. However, they were written by Sera Gamble and Ben Edlund, the show's two most senior writers. After them, the writing gets very murky. Why can't these same standards be held to the more junior members of the team? Why aren't they as in tune to the plotting and tying together loose ends? Why aren't they striving for consistency? "They're new writers" cannot be used as an excuse when that was never an issue with other seasons and other shows seem to have no problem with whoever writes the script. Somewhere, some control over the process has been lost.
Is it wrong as a fan for me to ask for better? If we've had seven seasons of this maybe not. But considering there used to be some consistency in plotting (not to mention careful attention to detail) it's something I as a fan cannot easily overlook. I used to be is massive awe over the writing. Now I'm finding exponential examples why The Vampire Diaries is creatively kicking Supernatural's butt. Is really sad for me actually, but then again, I'm just one opinion.
Overall, I give "Defending Your Life" a C. It was far better in exposing Dean and Sam's characterizations than last week, but things are still off. It's kind of deflating that just two weeks ago I was rather excited by what I've seen. It's sad to see TPTB give up this easily. As usual, now I'll hope for better next week.