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.