One of the things I find frustrating is an ambiguous presented villain. Now I’m not talking about the ethical or moral dimensions of a villain, but a villain who is posited with no real weaknesses to exploit or a plan that is presented as infallible until the last moment. It is a trend that you see a lot on TV nowadays, Torchwood: Miracle Day is a perpetrator of the infallible plan model, and it means that a lot of the time it is difficult to really become invested in the overall rhythm of the narrative. If you are aware that a villain is undefeatable or their plan is infallible then we we’re essentially just waiting for a last minute reveal or deus-ex machina. A similar thing can happen when a villain is presented as just being too powerful to take on.
Supernatural is something of an odd duck in this regard, because when it started out its rules were massively defined, to the point where episode after episode had a similar resolution. The Winchesters would roll into town, find ghostly goings on, find out who the ghost used to be, find their corpse, defile their corpse and if the episode was running short have to run around and find an old hairbrush or something that had the last vestiges of the ghosts physical form on. Not only was there something inherently charming about a show whose go-to conclusion was desecration of a corpse but it gave the majority of season one and two a structure and rhythm. We always knew what the stakes were and any complications had a clear solution, it was the speed bumps that made stuff interesting not the overall setup.
Season three introduced demons as the primary antagonist, with monster of the week episodes scattered throughout and good old ghost stories largely abandoned, and immediately had to bring in measures to counter them. Now in season one and two a demon was bad news, the kind of thing that could really mess you up and required a lot of work to deal with. The finale of season one was essentially the Winchesters versus two or three demons for example. To make the switch to demons as a major antagonist work they had to introduce elements that made them controllable, so we got a demon ally, a demon killing knife and a gun that could kill demons. Even the main villain of season three and four was just a demon, a creature that could be exorcised or killed with the correct application of force. It was only in season five and six that we lost a clear mechanic for solving a plot. Sure both seasons had an elaborate sort of fetch quest that provided one key mechanism for defeating the main villain but the villains were Satan himself and a loosely defined collaboration of angels, arch-angels, demons, eldritch abominations and Kings of Hell. You can’t expect Dean to just cold-clock Satan and as such we were no longer really watching the Winchesters, and Bobby, think on their feet and pragmatically deal with things. We were essentially watching them pick up plot coupons.
This is all part of the reason that despite the overall strength of seasons four and five I’ve always gravitated to season three as my favourite run of the show (it also helps that I really liked Katie Cassidy’s take on Ruby and liked the dynamic that Bella brought to the show). The stakes were apparent, demons were bad news and Lilith was worse news, but there was always something of a logical solution.
Getting this on track to talk about last night’s episode I have to admit I expected the worst when Castiel went all Stripe from Gremlins and propagated himself via water. I was expecting a legion of Leviathan, an unassailable horde which would quickly doom the Winchesters and have them scrabbling around for the next twenty episodes until they happened upon a solution. Having the Leviathans be small in number and highly structured means that the threat still feels manageable without divine intervention and also come across as divergent from most other threats that the Winchester’s have faced. Generally speaking the Winchester’s win by street smarts, by being pragmatic and outwitting their opponents. The Leviathans feel regulated and regimented in a way that suggests that they might be an intellectual as well as physical threat to the Winchesters. Episode writer, and general enormous talent, Ben Edlund was also able to quickly sketch the Leviathans whilst devoting attention to the situation with Sam and Dean and actually juggled the plotline really well. We got a taste of the Leviathans which emphasised their structure, their strengths, their temporary goals whilst never losing track of what Sam and Dean were getting up to. Edlund is also massively talented when it comes to writing jokes and whilst this episode wasn’t quite as humorous as previous Edlund pieces like ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ or ‘The French Mistake’ it was still laced with some choice exchanges and character beats. Whilst Edlund has a reputation for funny episodes (although Jeremy Carver is a writer responsible for a lot of the episodes I found truly hilarious) I think his dramatic work has always been really effective.
Edlund understands these characters better than any other writer and as such he always seems to be at his best when writing smaller, personal, stories such as my personal favourite episode ‘On the Head of a Pin’ which to me was a fulcrum point for season 4 and ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ which was the episode that course corrected the tail end of season six. As such I was really glad to see him focusing on Sam Winchester who has been a little lost at sea for the past few seasons. In fact one of the few criticisms I have with the episode is that it showed its hand, vis-à-vis Sam’s visions, a little too quickly. By quickly establishing that Sam was nuts the episode lost a lot of its potential creepiness, although the scenes where Sam tried to deal with his visions showcased some really great work from Padalecki and Mark Pellegrino.
I kind of hope that Mark Pellegrino resurfaces as Lucifer at some point in the season because his interactions with Padalecki were fantastic. Pellegrino will always be the house-trained goon from The Big Lebowski to me but his turns as Lucifer in Supernatural, Jacob in Lost and Paul in Dexter have all really impressed me. I kind of love how Pellegrino tends to underplay these characters, with a hint of menace covered up by a passive amiability. Whilst Pellegrino isn’t my definitive take on Lucifer, Viggo Mortensen takes that prize for his unsettlingly slimy performance in The Prophecy , I do love how calm and purposeful he is in the role. The natural assumption for an actor would be to play Satan as shouty and weird and gauche, otherwise known as the Pacino/Stormare method, but there is something utterly unsettling about Pellegrino’s performance and it perfectly accentuates Sam’s dilemma. Sam isn’t the kind of guy who is going to get threatened by a full on fire and brimstone vision of Satan, but a Satan who is shattering his belief and his trust is going to really push his buttons.
I discussed last week how one of the problems with having a central cast of two characters over seven seasons is that you run out of things for them to do. But this episode showed the flipside of that, because we knew what Sam had been through for the past seven years it was easy to understand how amazingly effective those hallucinations were on his already fractured psyche. It is the kind of continuity I love in these long running shows, the emotional and physical scars that the characters pick up as they battle along. What is also interesting me about this season is how it seems to have a completely new head of steam. Supernatural was often wary about having serialised episodes, I think there have been about half a dozen traditional two-part episodes in the shows entire run, but what we have here is the third part in a serialised run of episodes that started at the end of last season. When this is combined with the way the show is thinning out the support structure the Winchesters have (Bobby is MIA, Cas is gone, Death is pissed, Crowley is an antagonist, that sheriff from last season finally bought that bullet that gets fired whenever a female character shows up on the show) and is introducing a completely new threat seems to suggest that Supernatural is moving towards a soft-reboot of sorts, shifting the paradigm to what we had in the first few seasons. I think one brief shot even showed John Winchester’s diary, which was pivotal in the first two seasons, as having been scorched during the Leviathan attack on Bobby’s house.
Speaking of which I loved those last few minutes. The destruction of the house, the brief (and fruitless) scuffle with the Leviathan, Sam’s freak out, Dean finding out that he has no one to rely on and being driven to Leviathan central were all wonderful iconoclastic moments for this point in the season. We are used to seeing the Winchester’s in bad shape, but it feels like the screws have been tightened so consistently these past few episodes that next episode is either going to be a hell of a blow off (to use the parlance of the Carnie folk) or it will swerve into something else. On a related note if Bobby is dead, and that’s a pretty big if, then it is the right time for the character to go. Whilst I love the character, and love what Robert Singer brings to the show, he seems to serve as too much of a safety net for the Winchesters now and it would really maintain the momentum of these past two episodes if Bobby was taken out of the equation either temporarily or permanently.
Season seven already seems to be a lot more sure footed than last year and I really am hoping that it manages to maintain this tone throughout its run.