I re-watched the episode shortly after that, just before the season finale (which I loved), and I still didn’t like it. Then I recently re-watched the episode via my new Supernatural Season Ten Blu-Ray set. Now that I’ve had some time to absorb what was presented and watch again with a different POV, not a damn thing has changed. I still don’t like it.
If you’re still reading, then I owe you something for that, “Well, go on…” reaction that is firing in your head right now. Allow me to explain. The purpose of “The Prisoner” was to show Dean Winchester in full blown Mark of Cain tirade, aka off the rails. The episode was meant to show how low he could go and raise doubt in our mind that he’d be able to pull himself together for the season finale. He was supposed to be dangerous, lethal, and so terrifying that audiences would be stunned. I was stunned alright, but not by Dean’s behavior.
I know that “Supernatural” in this iteration is not that of the Kripke era. It’s a new show, a new voice, and it’s constantly re-inventing itself. But it still boils down to good storytelling and I saw too many holes and tropes in this version of the Dean Winchester meltdown. It’s continued evidence that the stories have been simplified in the past few seasons and a lot of the nuances and complications that went into a character’s struggle have been substituted for sensationalism and fandom pandering. As a result, the whole episode was nothing more than a predictable cliché of the man scorned, aka Kill Bill: Supernatural Edition.
I do accept that at the time of first airing I was still too livid and stinging over Charlie’s death to give this tale of revenge a fair shake. Actually, it was Charlie’s pointless death by the freaking Frankensteins that had me fuming. Bringing up such a fictional, unrealistic mythos as Frankenstein took legitimacy of the story away from me. A program that used to be relatable with it’s audiences went in a farcical direction that pushed this semi grounded sci-fi show into a place that lost all credibility. So yes, going into “The Prisoner,” I couldn’t watch a damn thing with any type of acceptance or excitement.
The opening salt and burn of Charlie’s body didn’t help. There have been so many deaths on this show, the somber ceremony doesn’t carry much emotional value anymore, no matter who it is. While this isn’t necessarily writer Andrew Dabb’s fault, this scene only brings attention to the fact that deaths are becoming too cliché and common on this show. We’re pissed this time, but the purpose is to show just how pissed Dean is too. He even harshly scolds Sam over his role in this. “You wanna know what I think? I think it should be you up there, not her.” I do give credit to Dabb here for raising doubt in our mind that Dean would be able to stop himself from killing Sam, thus fulfilling Cain’s eerie prophecy in “The Executioner’s Song.” But the wheels fall off the wagon after this and whatever powerful message we got in that scene loses all it’s luster by episode end.
We get to meet the Styne family, who turn out to be a powerful white Southern family that own all of Shreveport and have their own compound. When they’re together though, we end up with Dynasty for monsters. It’s stereotypical and just plain campy. Think “Bloodlines” of the south. That alone makes me indifferent to whether they live or die and that certainly doesn’t make them look like the fearsome foes we got in “Book of the Damned.” They’re unwatchable, even the likable one Cyrus that is so bland we don’t get any kind of emotional attachment to him or his fate.
Then there’s Dean facing that “inner monster.” I try to not go back to the Kripke era but it’s hard to avoid in this case. When Sam was facing his inner monster in “When The Levee Breaks” we saw the intense inner struggle about giving in to the evil within. The hallucinations were very powerful and unfolded his painful story in an oh so heartbreaking way. The choice to go after Lilith and use his powers went against everything in his nature, but he went that path anyway, even believing he would die from it, because he thought it would be for the greater good. I still cry over the hallucination of Mary. We could see where he was misguided, but at the same time, we also saw his POV as well. When he escaped and attacked Bobby, he instantly regretted what he did, reluctantly going on after displaying self hatred for the act. Even at the end, when Sam lost his temper and attacked Dean, we knew exactly what pushed him over the edge. It was the one thing he saw in the hallucination with fake Dean that tore him apart. His real brother actually called him a monster. We felt extreme sympathy for Sam the whole time, even though we all knew what he was doing was wrong.
On the flip side in “The Prisoner” Dean goes off in a tirade, caving into that monster within in mechanical type fashion, without evoking any kind of sympathy for the viewer to relate. As happy as I was to see all the Stynes meet a brutal yet deserving end, the whole thing played out like a cheap act of revenge.
Perhaps a fairer comparison would be going to one of Dabb’s own scripts from season six, “Unforgiven.” We knew that Soulless Sam was a reprehensible jerk. We were told he did some rather awful things. This was a chance to see just how irredeemable he was. Did we get an hour long story of flashbacks of Sam going off the rails and then end story with him killing those innocent victims of the Arachne? No. Instead we got a fantastic tale weaving those flashbacks with current Sam going through the horrific trauma of remembering the incident, seeing how much that side of him tore him apart emotionally. He so wanted to do right, to fix things, but there was no fixing this. The damage had been done and he had to pay the consequences, even if it was his soulless side doing the harm. It was another crushing tale that generated a huge amount of sympathy for the character. It was a very sad story but compelling to watch, especially the way the tale was framed. Then it ended with a big gotcha, the whole thing breached the wall. Too bad that wasn’t a segue way into a finale or a big myth episode, because that was a pretty wicked ending.
Yet here instead of a personal struggle, like we got with Cain at the end of “First Born,” Dean goes off the rails and kills all the bad guys, plus one good guy, and feels no remorse over it. Oh shock, horror, I’m stunned, I’m horrified, I’m…not impressed. I’ve often accused Andrew Dabb of falling on standard TV Tropes for his plotting and this time he hits several categories. We get the “Roaring Rampage of Revenge,” “Tranquil Fury,” the “Berserk Button,” the “Gotta Kill Them All” act as well as “Revenge Before Reason.” There’s actually more, but I’ll stop there.
Why include Cyrus Styne in the story if there was no redeemable moment to come out of it for Dean? It made the time we got to know him pointless and wasteful. Sure, watching Dean take out the Stynes was a little badass and fun, but this is not character building or deconstructing. It’s lazy writing and caters to more popcorn entertainment than anything. This show has always been a little better than that, especially in the crucial episode 22 of the season.
Then there’s the contrivance that is Dean beating up Castiel. For one, the dialogue was clunky. Castiel tries to tell Dean the Mark is changing him and Dean says it isn’t. Well, that’s an impasse. Since Dean is off the rails, he deals with the conflict with his fists! But Castiel, a very powerful angel that had no trouble restraining Dean in “Soul Survivor,” an angel that recently got his grace back so he’s hardly a weakling, doesn’t fight back. Is it because he doesn’t want to hurt Dean? A little self defense would have been okay, or maybe even some words like, “Don’t make me hurt you.” No, instead he lets Dean take his angel blade and Dean almost kills him. Was that supposed to be Dean’s moment of redemption? Was the supposed to be our sign that he wasn’t too far gone? If it was it didn’t work. It lacked tension and reeked with predictability. Again, I can’t help but compare this with Sam and Dean’s showdown in that final scene of “When the Levee Breaks.” This time the scene was lacking those dramatic elements like hurt feelings, overwrought emotion, and grand crescendo to a slow building and engaging dramatic story. It was just…there.
Once I get into the holes of staging and continuity, it all seems like nitpicking after what I’ve written so far. But still, some of the plot choices really irk me. Remember how the Men of Letters cave is supposed to be this impenetrable fortress? Heck, they needed a special key just to get in. Remember the words of the old (and supposedly only) surviving member of the Men of Letters? “Because it is the safest place on earth, warded against any evil ever created. It is impervious to any entry, except the key.” So Eldon Styne with his superhuman strength could just kick the door open? How about they show him trying, being unable to, and Dean killing them outside the MOL bunker? What benefit did doing all that in the library have other than it gave the show a cheap place to film the scene? It didn’t benefit the story other than it is a really pretty set. Actually, I do see the merit if they had kept a cut scene at the beginning of “Brother’s Keeper” where an emotional Sam was cleaning up the mess, but it the loss of that scene kills the impact of this scene’s setting.
One other thing, how in the world did Dean get back to the bunker so fast from Louisiana? And Castiel as well, arriving just a little after Dean, with damaged wings? Sam couldn’t get back there fast enough and he was in the same state! It all supports the theory that the Impala travels at warp speed. They could have always used the explanation from The Emperor’s New Groove.
Kuzco: No! It can't be! How did you get back here before us?
Yzma: Uh... [pauses]...how *did* we, Kronk?
Kronk: Well, ya got me. By all accounts, it doesn't make sense.
[Kronk holds up a map of the two parties' trails, showing Yzma's and Kronk's falling down a canyon halfway through]
But all this sounds like I’m calling the episode a total waste. There were some great moments. Without a doubt, the scene between Sam and Crowley was a huge winner. Well, sort of. I still don’t buy why Sam wanted to kill Crowley other than Sam hates demons.
Sam: It doesn’t matter. Maybe everybody else forgot about all the bad you’ve done, but I haven’t! I have watched you kill people, Crowley. Innocent people! People I cared about, people I loved! So yeah, you have the accent, and the suit, and the snark, but at the end of it, you are a monster! Just like all the rest of them. And I’m gonna watch you die, screaming. Just like all the rest of them.
He gave this line and I’m wracking my brain trying to remember who Crowley actually killed that Sam loved. Sarah? He hadn’t seen her in about 8 years, and it was a one time encounter. Meg? Definitely not. But anyway, that’s just me nitpicking again. The way that Sam’s attempt to kill Crowley totally backfired was completely awesome. The VFX of energized Crowley, the red eyes and smoke, pushing him back from being a mopey wreck to being the King of Hell, was epic.
But the part I loved the most was when Crowley had Sam incapacitated and defenseless on the floor, threatening him with one final blow.
Crowley: From here on, I want you to know that the only reason you’re alive is because I allowed it. And I want you to deliver a message. You tell that ginger whore that I gave her a chance to walk away and she spat in my face. So now, she’ll never see me coming.
Hell yeah! I had been dying to see that Crowley all season. Thank Chuck he’s back. And yes, Sam had that coming.
Since I’m on the praise train, Rowena wasn’t half bad this episode either. She and Castiel together were actually amusing. One of Dabb’s strengths can be his dialogue and I even laughed out loud over this:
Rowena to Castiel: I’m sorry. You’re just fascinating. An angel that rejected Heaven. That’s like a fish that wants to fly, or a dog that thinks he’s people.
A few minutes later…
Sam: I’m shutting this down, I promised Dean.
Rowena: Er, hello? Anyone want to tell me what’s going on?
Sam and Castiel: No.
Castiel: What about her?
Castiel: I’d be happy to kill her, she just called me a fish.
Still, even with the small nuggets of joy, “The Prisoner” is an episode I can’t stomach another re-watch. It was a completely inadequate setup to the stellar episode that followed. I feel manipulated and insulted by the use of sheer brutality over substance. My overall grade, a D+, which is marginally better than the totally insulting “Dark Dynasty” before it. Luckily there are enough gems to salvage the season for me, but I do wish we had gotten something better so late in the season. Ah well, I’m so ready for season eleven.