Back in early season nine a fellow blogger who shall remain nameless confided to me that they saw a big issue with “Supernatural.” Carver and his writing team had no concrete plan -one hadn’t been spelled out yet. If it ended up being that way by midseason, the season would fall apart before the end. After taking in “Stairway To Heaven,” which is supposed to be the ultimate build up to the big showdown, this person is coming across as a freaking genius. It’s episode 22 and there is still no plan.
For those of us who have been with “Supernatural” since the early seasons, most of us don’t expect it to be the show it once was. A lot has changed, as well as the characters. But still, there’s the little things we hold dear that we’d like to see a lot of the time. A fluid script, plotting that delivers the story in the direction that’s been forewarned all season while delivering something extra we hadn’t seen coming, something that makes us smile on occasion as well leave us completely shocked, a certain banter between the characters that’s lively and just something in general resembling a personality. Sadly, that flare in writing has been missing in a lot of scripts and it was missing here.
Keep in mind I often don’t like Andrew Dabb’s writing style. I think “Dark Side of The Moon” was brilliant, but he’s had way more misses than hits. There are four episodes in the history of “Supernatural” that get me cursing every time I see them mentioned and Andrew Dabb (with and without partner Daniel Loflin) has written three of them. (“Hammer of The Gods,” “Season Seven: Time For A Wedding” and “Bloodlines.” The other episode is “Man’s Best Friend with Benefits.”) His attention to detail has never been the greatest, he struggles in bringing overall themes together, he rarely pays attention to what other writers have introduced and he’s always been a little hard and loose with canon. I always cringed whenever his scripts came after a Ben Edlund one because he’d get the ideal setup from Ben with the story and do nothing with it.
Granted “Stairway To Heaven” wasn’t all bad, and I have some great words later in this review for the whole Dean mytharc and the way Jensen has been killing it, but let me get the bad stuff out of the way first. And there was a lot of that.
What Didn’t Work
What was missing in “Stairway To Heaven?” For one, there’s still no high stakes. There’s no deep urgency driving these characters right now, except for Dean, and his issue is more of a dangerous (and freaking scary) affliction than a man on a vital mission to save the world. Even the one guy who has the most to lose, Castiel, seems rather uninspired in his commander role. Probably because he’s dying or something. Good to see both Sam and Dean showing some real concern over that. Everything seems like random events happening because they can with no real consequences.
The pacing of the episode was uneven. Another big weakness of Dabb’s is he often takes too much of the hour for plot exposition. Where some scripts will have you deep into the plot and action after only five minutes of build (name an Edlund script, a lot of Thompson’s too), we were a good twenty minutes into this episode before we moved past the first mark of the story (when Castiel and Sam found the “Heaven” room). There’s only 42 minutes in an episode. That’s not the sort of thing you need in episode 22, when the stakes are supposed to be soaring high and so much needs to be done before the finale. It’s really important in this case because the rest of the season has failed to set much up. Don’t know what I mean? Watch “Arrow” season two. Heck, watch “Supernatural” season two. Gut wrenching storytelling that moves the mark forward every week, building up to the ultimate conflict.
A lot of bits felt awkward, mostly at the angel HQ. There was Dean accusing Castiel of arranging the suicide bombings. That seemed forced. Thankfully Sam’s aside (“Stow the baggage”) grounded us and got us back on track, but it’s that kind of weirdness that dulls the impact of a scene. Then there’s Metatron. Turns out this year’s big bad is nothing more than a dork who hated being one of the uncool kids in Heaven all these years. Really? Is that a worthy villain of our time? Doesn’t it seem to you that Curtis Armstrong would love to get beyond his Revenge of The Nerd days? His whole bit about being a likeable and funny guy was very uncomfortable, as was his trench coat. Why did Dabb go for this angle? It minimalizes Metatron, and that’s something you don’t want going into the final conflict. It’s okay to show a villain’s weakness, but his overall personality shouldn’t be weak. It wasn’t weak when he was introduced in last seasons “The Great Escapist.” That is exactly a big reason why this season’s angel mytharc is failing.
I have loved the angel storyline ever since it was introduced in season four, but it’s been totally botched this season. Why? For starters, angels have always been written as a bunch of selfish dicks. Every time a sympathetic one comes along, he or she is killed or eventually made to look like a dick before he or she is killed. There are no redeemable characters. What happened to Malachi and his forces? Why even bother to show him at all just to give him an off camera death? Castiel is the only one we’ve truly gotten to know, and his predicaments wildly change like the weather. He’s a savoir one week and a chump the next. Now he’s dying and no one cares. Who does that to such a beloved character? Who finds that interesting?
As for the angels, they are fickle bunch and their constant changing of loyalties at the drop of a hat has always been irritating, but it’s even more so at this point. It’s episode 22, I need action, not watching a bunch of shallow dicks change their minds AGAIN. Metatron is an annoying dick who’s unfairly treating a bunch of dicks. I’m sorry, but how can we get on board with this conflict? Is this the main conflict of the season? It sounds like to me they should all blow each other up and call it the end. When that happens, we as viewers will shrug and move on, not remotely invested in the story.
The bowling angel is the one who’s actually pegged the whole season so far. He’s the voice of each individual writer. Screw you all, I’m doing what I want. (I’m thrilled he found a love of bowling though. Some angels are adapting to earth nicely and like it). There are so many ways to make the Heaven struggle exciting and no one seems committed to doing that. Why not have a good old-fashioned war between Heaven and Hell with Sam and Dean square in the middle? The brothers both hold alliances with Crowley and Castiel, which puts them in a big pickle not to mention it drives conflict. How about secondary characters, like angels, be written sympathetically so we actually care about their cause and what happens to them? Otherwise nothing is shocking us. We see an angel killed or sacrificed and go, “whatever.” Just another death. These deaths stopped meaning something a lot time ago.
Another big problem with “Stairway To Heaven” is flow. The scenes going back and forth were choppy and the two stories didn’t blend very well in terms of tone. It’s supposed to make the plot look busy, but all they managed to do was confuse viewers and often bore us. I know a lot of people were also upset the with continued botched canon regarding reapers. I’m never going to buy that reapers are angels. That is total crap. Some where along the line two writers that have no respect for canon decided to make this happen and it’s sucked ever since. However, we have to accept that it is canon now, so I guess we’ll just call them angels of Death. That makes Death God in my book BTW. Why don’t they just write that into canon too just to run with the whole crazy idea? The fact is that if canon was the only thing wrong here, I’d be pretty damned happy. Remember the Grand Canyon gaffe last year? Well Ben Edlund went on Twitter this week and apologized for that, even giving a cute joke that he dropped “the canon ball” (I so love this man). We can forgive because one comment on the Grand Canyon isn’t going to have lasting impact to the story. This reaper lore has and I do wish the writers had explored this a lot more carefully before going down this path.
There was absolutely no reason that Tessa needed to be in this story. They could have brainwashed anyone. Her entire presence felt out of place. Andrew Dabb is the guy you never, ever want to bring back an old character. His tactic is a cliché in television writing, he needs a token death, and by bringing back an old character just to off them that’s supposed to mean something. Except in his case, we’ve been left scratching our heads asking, “Why was this death necessary?” This is the guy that killed Gabriel (still extremely bitter!), Sarah in episode 22 last season (that still makes no sense) and now Tessa. This is a desperate act of a writer who’s forgotten how to write passionate stories. Case in point, remember “Abandon All Hope?” That’s how you kill off a guest character, by making their sacrifice relevant to the overall mytharc. Leave an impact that will sting for years to come. Sorry, my mourning over Tessa lasted about ten seconds.
Before I get to the fascinating story of Dean,let me get my criticisms out of the way with the way they are treating Sam. I have a lot of criticisms (scathing ones) of how Sam’s character has been handled this season, but I’m saving most of that for my traditional “Deeper Look at Sam Winchester” examination that I do at the end of each season. For now, let’s stick with this episode.
It’s episode 22 of the season. This the penultimate episode leading up to the finale. So WHY are Sam and Castiel only NOW having the “Does Dean seem different to you?” discussion? In episode 20 of season four, Dean saw that Sam was off the rails and locked him in the panic room. He had gotten way beyond “Does Sam seem different?” by that point. Why did the writers drag their feet on the whole Mark of Cain thing when Dean got the damn thing in episode 11? Why aren’t they taking that golden nugget of opportunity and running with it in terms of the impact on both brothers? Last season did that for the most part with The Trials. We got to see how much it was hurting Dean as well as Sam. Yes, I know, many of you didn’t like Dean playing nervous mother, but at least we got to see him react to something. Sam isn’t reacting much at all, just storming off to his room and giving us weary glances. Ugh, way to make a beloved character seem like a total selfish dick.
I get why there is brotherly conflict. That sort of conflict is perfect in driving a story. The turbulent relationship of Sam and Dean has always been the center focus of this series. But conflict needs to be organic, not forced. Season four is by far the best example of how conflict can be done right. They tried to stick with each other, mostly out of obligation, but it slowly and progressively unraveled by the end of the season and lead to detrimental consequences. This season unfortunately turns out to be the glaring example of conflict done wrong. There’s been no gradual nothing. All it’s been is a bunch of griping at each other and this week, Sam storming off in a tizzy when Dean went too far. Where is the heartfelt “I won’t let my brother turn into a monster” speech? Since when is Sam Winchester a spineless dude that won’t stand up to his brother? (Scans prior seasons to see when he’s ever been like this, finds zero evidence). He should have been taking action by now on Dean’s behavior and been more emotionally involved. Or better yet, Sam could have stormed out the bunker door. That’s probably what I would have done, but that wouldn’t have curbed my sense of outrage. It just would have made more sense.
Deep breath…okay, time for something positive. Let’s talk about Dean.
The Good Part
Yes, there is a silver lining (dark silver) and that’s Jensen taking the total crap that he’s been given and spinning it into pure gold. That is the mark of a great actor. Despite the poor development and missed opportunities by the writers to build better conflict in the story, what we have been shown of Dean’s descent is brilliant, dark, disturbing, and it’s scaring the freaking crap out of me. Dean has always struggled with his inner primal instinct, the one of a killer. His words from “You Can’t Handle The Truth” still echo in my mind today: “But what I’m good at is slicing throats. I ain’t a father, I’m a killer. And there’s no changing that, I know that now.” It’s his darkest inner demon, the absolute worst part of himself, and it’s been his relationship with Sam that’s grounded him and kept his inner killer from completely absorbing him. You take Sam out of the equation (like they have with the “we’re not brothers” thing) and Dean risks giving into that very dark side of himself.
When he first came in contact with the First Blade, naturally it scared the crap out of Dean. The blade combined with the Mark of Cain eats away the humanity and taps into that inner primal instinct. That’s why Dean was compatible. We’ve had so many signs showing the slow erosion of Dean’s humanity layer (the long looks in the mirror, the angsty shower, the quiet moments of sheer panic). The more Dean uses the blade, the more he turns into the uncontrollable monster with no human filter, Dean at his primal core. Dean got to tap into that core in Purgatory, but the rules were different there. He had to do that to survive and he could still control what he was. He may have taken on the mark thinking he was doing it for survival, but in reality he was in just too much pain at the time to care about the consequences. He’s learning them now and can no longer resist the temptations.
Dean has been running scared for so long, no wonder the sense of calm the blade gives him is attractive. It gives him the power and leverage that he’s always been lacking against these big bads, ones that have destroyed his family and everyone he’s loved. The question we can only ask now is does Dean have a stopping point? Cain stopped for the love of his life, who he ended up accidentally killing with the blade, but not before he promised to stop being the killer he was. Will Dean be able to stop when Sam is on that other end? Castiel? If the parallels to Cain and Abel come to fruition, the answer is no. If that happens, if Dean does actually kill his brother, can Dean ever be saved? He just slashed an angel while giving him a conciliatory handshake. That goes against all the rules of men. Has Dean just pushed himself into the point of no return with that gruesome act?
The only one I think that truly gets how much the Mark of Cain is tearing apart Dean is Crowley, and he’s the one that started all this. It’s quite brilliant if you think about it, and I really hope that plays into the finale. Now that Abaddon is dead, Dean can focus his bloodlust on Metatron. But what happens once he’s gone? Who becomes next? It seems in this pattern there will never be an end to Dean’s wrath, and that’s a very, very scary thing for his character. He’s a weapon of mass destruction now. No wonder Crowley wants that. I imagine that Dean’s darkness and the Mark of Cain will be a big player in season ten. Dean called the Mark a means to an end. Was he talking about his end? Is the purpose of the Mark of Cain to finish off his own sense of self destruction that he’s had all these years?
One thing is for sure, this ain’t team free will and that message got through loud and clear. Dean is off the rails and I’m sure none of us were feeling any warm fuzzies when Dean told Castiel confidently that the three of them could carry on the fight. We weren’t supposed to. This was the opposite feeling of the “Team Free Will” speech Dean gave in “The Song Remains The Same,” especially since Sam was off angry in his room. Dean has evolved into something unrecognizable, and it’s both thrilling and freaky ass scary. Who will be the one to stop him? Can he be stopped? Well done Jensen for knowing Dean’s story all too well. When the actor is that in tune to his character, something so complex like a slow gradual descent can be pulled off in the most amazing ways – ways the scripts often fail to convey.
So, while Dean’s mytharc is carrying on well, I’m still left with a rest of the season that makes no sense to me. 22 episodes and all I can tell about season nine at this point is the writers seem to be scrambling to the finish line so they don’t miss their writing deadlines. “Stairway To Heaven” was a mess, but I shouldn’t be so harsh because this episode is a victim of just overall poor plotting for season nine. There are so many ways this episode could have taken us into the finale and didn’t. I’m very interested to see what happens next in the world of Dean Winchester, but there is nothing about this setup that makes me feel like I’m going into the epic season ending showdown.
I have a ton of faith in Jeremy Carver to pull off something amazing like he did in last season’s “Sacrifice.” If he manages to salvage anything out of season nine with one script, then TPTB need to enforce a mandate that this guy write more scripts. Like all of them. When it comes to pulling everything together in an emotionally satisfying way, Carver seems to be the only skilled writer left. But I’ll let all that go until next week’s review. For now it’s one homicidal brother against an insolent little brat angel that has a skewering coming. I guess that’s better than nothing.