Deep into Hellatus before Supernatural’s eighth season, I find myself wondering what Jeremy Carver is up to in that writers’ room. I know he’s a wonderful writer, but I’m most interested in his show-running talents. What does he feel drives the show? How does he intend to structure the storytelling? These questions are foremost in my mind because I’ve been thinking over what worked and what didn’t last season.
Hero Myths and Character Studies
Though Supernatural draws heavily on the horror genre, fuelling many of its plots with urban legends, the show’s core is actually a hero myth wrapped around character studies of the heroes. Each season our heroes must complete a quest because they are the only ones who can. And each season, we watch the terrible price Sam and Dean must pay to succeed. The question that runs through the series is: what does each brother need to keep going? And over and over, the answer is: each other. Family ties, in all their terrible complexity, permeate Supernatural. Love is the greatest power of all, triumphing over evil and good intentions gone bad.
The mythic overtones of the story give the plot real depth, while Sam’s and Dean’s personal journeys give the narrative a resonance for many viewers that transcends the fantasy elements. The audience cares about both boys individually and as brothers. Their bond, while more co-dependent than is usually deemed healthy, gives them the strength to sacrifice what they must to keep going. As Lucifer found to his cost, Sam and Dean will fight to save each other even when they have given up on themselves.
In the first five seasons, there was a finely crafted balance between Sam and Dean’s external quest and the exploration of their internal journeys. Season one’s quest was to find John Winchester and learn what his quest was. Sam’s personal arc was to realize much of his conflict with his father was based on their similarities, not their differences, and he was lying to himself about not being a hunter. Dean’s journey was to admit he was insecure about his place in the family, even as he worked to keep everyone together. The boys’ shared journey was to reconnect with each other because they needed each other. It’s possible to describe the following four seasons with equally clear quests and journeys.
A New Beginning
When Sera Gamble took over as show runner in season six, she had a huge mandate: reboot the series so it could go on post-Apocalypse—or post-NonApocalypse. Gamble was and is a fine writer. Episodes like “Faith” (with Raelle Tucker) and “Heart” deepened the characterizations of both Sam and Dean. Her challenge was to grow into a show runner—and here she had a few growing pains.
Season six had a daring structure: without telling the audience why, Sam changed substantially, which in turn changed Sam’s and Dean’s dynamic. The entire enterprise had a noirish feel as the writers decided to show the debate over what exactly makes us human without setting the scene first. It was a risky move, because many viewers were very uncomfortable with the way they viewed this new Sam and Soulless Sam stuck around for half a season.
I found the arc very satisfying, as part of Sam’s closed off nature has always been his fear of what exactly he is. What does it mean that he has had demon blood since he was a baby? What is the impact of having his life shaped by demons? Of being bred to be Lucifer’s vessel? I think Gamble was right on the money to have Sam realise his soul is the most important part of him and whatever else he may be, he has the crucial element to being human. And it was a typical Supernatural move to have Dean have to decide to return Sam’s soul at the possible expense of his life. There is always a cost for these two.
Dean, of course, also had his own changes to deal with in season six. His journey was to try and retire from hunting to have a family of his own. Again, some viewers were not comfortable with a Dean who had a different focus, doomed as his efforts inevitably were. But to me, this story line had to be done, because Dean’s longing for his own family had been shown early in the series. It’s too important a character point to remain unexplored.
John Winchester laid two conflicting charges on his young son: be the perfect caregiver for Sam and be the perfect hunter for his dad. John himself could not handle both parenting and hunting at the same time, but this is what he expected of Dean. Dean wears his hunting face openly and that is the aspect by which most other characters define him. But those who know him best realize how important it is to Dean to be able to love.
Dean’s desire to keep Sam safe and his birth family together is the most obvious sign. There are others. John Winchester tells his sons he wishes he could help Dean have a family of his own. The Djinn’s poison gave us another peek into Dean’s hidden dreams, as did the dream walking in “Dream A Little Dream of Me.” In both cases, Dean wanted an ordinary life with a kind pretty girl next door, eventually embodied by Lisa Braedon.
Giving Dean his dream was an earned plot in season six. The point of the arc was to show Dean he can’t be a part time hunter and he really isn’t suited to an ordinary life. He had to try to live his ideal to give it up. I don’t think giving up this particular dream means Dean no longer desires a family or that his hunter instincts have conquered his caregiving nature. I think these two aspects are still warring within him and his journey to find a way to live with both characteristics is still ongoing.
So, to me, Sam’s and Dean’s personal arcs in season six were well chosen. What didn’t work as well was weaving the boys’ personal journeys together or into the quest story, which was unfocused.
Season six is the first season where it is not easy to sum up the over all quest. This was a deliberate choice—the writers were pulling a bait and switch, where the ostensible big bad was not the real big bad. Unfortunately, this choice meant the Mother of All was a little undeveloped and her role ended a bit abruptly, while Sam and Dean were kept mostly out of Castiel’s journey down the road of good intentions. With Dean unconnected to Sam and both boys unconnected to Castiel’s difficulties with the war in heaven, the quest narrative did not hold together and drive the season the way it had in years past.
Season Seven: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Season seven had some great episodes. It started with a bang with the set up for Sam’s hallucinations and his dependency on a brother who didn’t know how to help him. The Leviathans were introduced in a suitably creepy way and the writers’ decision to destabilize everything we thought we could depend on in the Winchester universe so Sam and Dean had only themselves left had a lot of promise. A shake up often reveals new creative ground.
So with all that going for it, why did it end up a rather unsatisfying season? I believe it can be summed up with what cannot be summed up. What was the central quest of the season? If it was the Leviathans, then how was it possible to drop them out of the narrative until the last four episodes? Actually, I do know why the writers were reluctant to actually bring the Leviathans into Sam and Dean’s orbit—they were too powerful. The Winchesters had no leverage for far too much of the season. Supernatural is known for its charismatic villains, but it’s hard to have charisma all by oneself. We needed to see Dean and Sam getting in Roman’s face and vice versa.
Was the quest really meant to be the Winchesters’ personal demons (something I thought for much of the season)? If so, what was Dean’s personal journey? If it was finally bringing his depression and drinking into the open, why did the story stall there? Make no mistake, I think this arc was earned and logical, given Dean’s nature and what he’s been through. But it is not wise to let a story spin its wheels. Dean needed to move forward, because if he stays where he is, as Bobby said, he will die. This is the first season Dean openly drank all day long. Sam noticed. We noticed. The story needed to engage with it.
Sam’s arc is easier to define. He had to find a way to live with his battered soul or die. However, in terms of a journey, we only hit the highlights. And those highlights were wonderful—Sam almost killing Dean, Dean anchoring Sam, Dean fearing for Sam’s sanity and withholding his decision to kill Amy, Sam finally losing his battle to separate hallucination from reality—it was all good stuff. Mark Pellegrino made a compelling villain and unlike Dick Roman, when Lucifer appeared, he got lots of face time with Sam.
Even with all this going for it, the arc still didn’t quite click. While I understand the writers wanted to lull Dean and therefore us into believing everything with Sam was fine, we needed to have some hints there was more going on than met the eye. I could fanwank Sam’s distress, but all fanwank and no clues does not give a story legs. Sam’s story began and ended strongly, but almost disappeared in the middle.
With both boys so unfocused in their personal journeys, it’s no surprise their shared relationship got little development. We got a few snapshots, such as Sam side eying Dean singing Air Supply and Sam asking Dean to please not die and being willing to shoot his brother’s daughter. But the boys didn’t have to either work out their relationship or rely on each other to achieve something concrete in the over all quest. We didn’t see why they needed each other rather some other competent hunter.
To Sum Up . . .
Season seven continued season six’s issues with the quest arc and added in issues with Sam and Dean’s personal arcs. Since I believe those story points are the core of the show, the season had some serious issues Jeremy Carver will need to address.
I don’t want to sound as if I have only negative feelings about Supernatural. Far from it. I love this show. Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles are wonderful actors and they bring Sam and Dean to vibrant life. I think the Winchesters are multi-dimensional full realized characters and I still love to write about them seven years in. I think the show has been so well written, it’s possible to analyze both characters and story with rich details to support an interpretation (a common past time for Supernatural fans!). And I loved many episodes of the last two seasons. “Death’s Door” was simply great television and a testament to Sera Gamble’s writing talent.
But to keep the quality as high as Supernatural has always maintained, the issues with the season framing quest and the boys’ personal journeys have to be addressed. The story needs an engine to drive it forward and the characterizations need to be detailed, moving and connected. I need to know what I am hoping for with Sam and Dean. So I guess this is a letter to Jeremy Carver. Dear Sir, this is what I hope for season eight.