Supernatural has an almost claustrophobically restrictive focus when it comes to its cast. The show has tried to expand its focus on a few occasions, but aside from Bobby Singer and Castiel these new additions have never really stuck. Even Bobby Singer isn’t viewed as a ‘regular’, with Jim Beaver consistently being assigned a ‘Guest Starring’ credit. Whilst I understand that maintaining focus on Sam and Dean’s story is important it’s kind of amazing that by its seventh season the show has only three core characters. From its second season onwards Supernatural expanded its scope and focus, introducing bit players and recurring antagonists which gave life to the universe. Whilst the show was keen to not lump the Winchesters with too many additional characters, the destruction of the Roadhouse at the end of season two was one of the more overt culling methods the show employed, it at least seemed to have a desire to create a rotating ensemble. But quickly looking down the list of additions to the cast becomes something of an exercise in frustration.
Ellen and Jo were pretty big movers and shakers in season two, and then disappeared only to pop back up in season five for their heroic sacrifice. Bella was a recurring antagonist which the show completely lost interest with and murdered at the end of the season she was introduced in. Rufus popped up at the tail end of the third season, was mentioned in pass in the next season, popped up again in season five, and was promptly murdered after a few appearances in season six. Ruby got recast, went evil, and got murdered over the course of two seasons. Samuel Campbell and his cadre of demon hunters showed up at the start of season six, teased themselves as a major element of the show and then promptly got side-lined to the point where I’m still not sure what their actual function was. Even characters that weren’t part of a potential ensemble were quickly swept under the rug. Remember that seer from season four who got blinded and then promptly murdered? Or Gordon the rogue hunter from season two? Or the antichrist? Hell what about the main villains. How many times did we see Azazel in his two season stint as the main villain? Or Lilith for that matter, and I think we’ve already seen as much of Lucifer in this season than we did in season five.
The point I’m trying to make is that Supernatural has never been particularly adept at juggling its expanded cast. I think one of the main issues with season six is that the show suddenly had about a dozen characters to deal with and had no idea to do with such an expanded cast. As such I found the use of Jo’s ghost in this episode really frustrating. Largely because it feels like it cheapens an already paper-thin character to have her lasting effect on Sam and Dean be an overriding sense of guilt. I would use terms like a betrayal of the character if I was a little more invested in the expanded cast, but it is definitely frustratingly reductive. Because you’re essentially turning this cast, who all had so much potential, into yet another notch onto the Winchester’s sorrow bedpost. It feels like sorrow is the fuel of the show now and it is infuriating when the show cannibalises itself to maintain that tone.
If it sounds like I’m being overly negative it’s because I am, and that is largely because I really enjoyed the setup to this episode. Last week I was talking about the show seemed to be trying to get back to its roots and this episode, which started out as a simple ghost story, seemed to be continuing that sense of energy. I was immediately concerned when Dean himself commented on this, largely because television writers never focus your attention on something unless they’re hoping to subvert something. As such I spent the first twenty minutes waiting for the other shoe to drop. When it turned out that it was Osiris punishing folks (did he not get invited to the godly get together in ‘Hammer of the Gods’?) I was hoping that it might involve a nice piece of subtle commentary on Dean’s actions last episode. In actuality what the episode entailed was making us painfully aware of the fact that Dean felt really bad about all the stuff he had done, by way of Ackles looking forlorn and constant flashback montages. I know that last week’s episode wasn’t widely loved but I at least appreciated the narrative and direction choices in it, this honestly felt flat and kind of pointless. In fact the entire function of the episode seemed to be the final two minutes where Sam declared his new outlook on life whilst Dean looked on glumly
What annoyed me about the episode was that Dean has a lot of specific stuff to feel guilty about. In fact one of my main problems with the character since season four was his refusal to accept any culpability for the release of Lucifer, his actions in Hell triggering the broken seals, and instead chose to heap guilt onto Sam for his part in it. But it turns out that the things Dean feels guilty about are things that are largely out of his control. Jo’s death had very little, practically, to do with Dean or Sam and as such Dean carrying the guilt of her death on his shoulders doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t make him seem noble or troubled, it just makes him sociopathic. By carrying around the guilt for stuff he was only tangentially related to it allows him to assuage some of his guilt over more pressing concerns whilst also being able to rationalise it as not being his fault. I’m also pretty sure that this episode went over ground that the fourth season episode “Are You There God? It’s Me, Dean Winchester” had already well-trod. In fact I actually think that “Are You There God?” not only went over the themes of this episode in a far more interesting way, but had a far more suitable well of guilt for Dean in the broken form of Meg Masters’ ghost.
In terms of positive I thought the acting in the episode was generally great. Jensen Ackles had very little to and was pretty much reduced to making puppy dog eyes of sorrow at the ghost of Jo but everyone else was great. Padalecki was real fun in this episode, giving Sam a presence and energy that he hasn’t had for years. Alona Tal meanwhile had just about as much to do as Ackles, but made her limited screen time really count. The make-up job and general muted tone to the character really conveyed an existential sadness, like Jacob Marley had just burst into an episode of Supernatural. Finally Faran Tahir was delightfully genial as Osiris. I had a few issues with how easily Osiris was defeated, but it was nice to actually have a different kind of villain for the Winchesters’ to bounce off.
Last week I was talking about how it felt like season seven was trying to return to a style and tone similar to the first few seasons. This however felt like Supernatural almost feasting on itself and not doing anything interesting with this cannibalisation.