I was actually kind of bored with this episode’s first and second act. Largely because it felt like we knew way more than Sam and Dean and were essentially waiting for them to catch up. It is one of the major issues with ‘previously on’ montages at the start of an episode. Because if the previously on montage has a flashback to a season three episode then you know that is going to be what the episode is about. As such we knew right from the off that Witchcraft was abound and this knowledge wasn’t helped by the fact that the main twist to the concept didn’t occur until the last ten minutes. I actually love the final fifteen minutes to this episode and it is frustrating how much time the episode wastes before getting to its fantastic central premise. As mentioned the Winchesters had dealt with witches before, although this is only the second time that the Brothers had overtly dealt with witches in the entire season, in the fantastic season three episode ‘Malleus Maleficarum’. What was great about that episode was that it presented witches as being completely and utterly unpredictable in terms of power and motivation. I always liked the sense that witches were an amazingly powerful facet of the Supernatural world, but were generally benign enough to not really have to deal with Hunters. Supernatural has always had some very odd gender politics, but I always liked the fact that specifically female magic was exceptionally powerful and completely off the normal moral scale of the show.
‘Shut Up, Dr Phil’ maintained the general rule of witchcraft being exceptionally powerful, with its own set of limitations, and made the central conflict far more emotional and small scale than the end of the world plots that had come to define villains in Supernatural. Like I said I think there is something a little creepy as witches being show as exponentially destructive and utterly rueful, but I appreciate the different texture and tone of the episodes that deal with them. The problem with ‘Shut Up, Dr Phil’ is that specific rhythm and style only comes into play when the episodes shifts its focus to its two antagonist, a pair of feuding witches played by Charisma Carpenter and James Marsters. The Starks, Maggie and Donald, are the heart of the episode and every time the episode moves from them it sort of sinks into a ‘same old, same old’ sort of style. Marsters and Carpenter are old hands when it comes to supernatural themed TV shows and their presence alone fleshes out the Starks in a way that makes it feel like this a cross-over episode into THEIR TV show. It doesn’t help that Dean is still kind of mopey, and the second flashback to Amy Pond’s death means she’s now the seventh or eighth longest running recurring female character in the show, and Sam is kind of non-descript and high on life. It’s been a consistent bugbear of mine this season, but Sam and Dean just aren’t much fun to hang around with and as such I find myself kind of latching onto any peripheral character I can.
I think the problem is that we know how the Sam and Dean relationship is going to go down this season and as such it feels like we’re biding our time and waiting for Sam to find out about Amy at the worst possible time. It is thematically consistent, but it is about as dull to watch as paint drying. I think the problem with Supernatural is that the show often layers things on to thick, makes subtext text and then beats you over the head with it. Last week was an episode that was overtly about Dean’s feelings of guilt, but another show would have pursued a similar storyline and made those feelings part of the subtext. One of the things I appreciated about ‘Shut Up, Dr Phil’ is that I got the impression that the Starks were supposed to be a glimpse into what would happen if the Winchesters ever started to properly trade blows. I took the Starks co-dependency and knowledge of each other’s weaknesses and passions to essentially be holding a mirror up to what would happen to the Winchesters once the truth about Amy Pond gets out. I could, and probably am, be wrong, but it feels like the show is definitely building up to a cataclysmic rift between Sam and Dean. Supernatural has always been about the Winchester’s against the world, but this season feels like it has exemplified how close the brothers are and how potentially dangerous that closeness is. Their entire support structure seems to be gone, Cas is dead, their Hunter allies are dead, the Campbells are long gone, Crowley is back to being a villain, Bobby is roving the country to replace his library. There is nowhere for the Winchesters to turn but inwards, and whilst they have had bust ups before there has always been an external force to act as a kind of mediator.
Getting back to the episode at hand, after last week’s drab and dour offering it was quite nice to get back to something a little lighter and a little more fun visually. Supernatural is a show that has always prided itself on its gore and violence and the Final Destination style kills scattered throughout the episode were a nice return to form. In particular the nail-gun kill was one of the nastier things the show has done in a while and demonstrated the pleasingly grisliness the show has always flaunted. In fact there was a generally fun tone to most of the episode nicely paid off in those last ten minutes when the Starks resolved their differences with the help of the Winchesters. The sequence is fantastic largely because the focus is primarily on the Starks and the brief asides and interjections by both Sam and Dean really allowed Padalecki and Ackles to show off their comedy chops. It was a sequence where everything came together and I really wished we had spent more time with the Starks in the build up to it. What didn’t work quite so well were the bookends with the Canadian Leviathan who has been stalking the Winchesters these last few episodes.
Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex split its stories into ‘Stand Alone’ and ‘Complex’ episodes. With ‘Stand Alone’ episodes being singular police procedurals and ‘Complex’ episodes being all part of the overall season narrative. I felt that this episode was a ‘Stand Alone’ episode that had ‘Complex’ elements shoehorned in. Having the Leviathan physically in the episode keeps the main meta-narrative going, but having the Leviathan be the denouement to an episode that had nothing to do with him felt like it damaged the structure of the episode itself. It doesn’t help that he essentially shows off, shows the Winchesters how powerful they are and then is magically incapacitated. The fact the Winchesters don’t seem to know what he is, although it could have been awkward scripting, kind of makes it feel all the more pointless. Especially because Canadian Leviathan was setup as a Meg Masters style recurring antagonist not two episodes ago.
I’m still not entirely sure what the game plan is for season seven, but every new episode seems to be harkening back to how the show used to be. At the moment I’m assuming that the idea is to turn Supernatural back into a strict monster of the week show, with only a loose meta-narrative guiding its overall structure.