I had a curious reaction to this week’s “A Little Slice of Kevin.” The episode finally revealed Jeremy Carver’s plans for the myth arc, and the potential is clear and intriguing. Writers Eugenie Ross-Leming and Brad Buckner also nicely wove in to the action the main theme of the season: perception, how we shape it and it shapes us. Add to that the well done return of Castiel to the main story line and there was a lot to like about “A Little Slice of Kevin.” And yet, well, there was an “And yet . . .” for me.
I decided to watch the episode a couple more times before writing my review, to try and get a good handle on my reaction. I’m glad I did, because I liked the episode more on the rewatch. I also put my finger on what bothered me. Since there was so much that worked in the story, I’m going to start with the positive elements.
I loved the return to the myth arc. Supernatural benefits from having a clear quest to give the season forward momentum. Season seven suffered from a lack of focus, despite having many fine episodes when viewed as stand alones. Story lines started and sputtered out, only to revive too late to develop any nuance. Season eight’s quest to close the gates of hell should propel the action very nicely and the promise of further tablets to protect mankind should fuel further seasons, provided this quest is well handled.
Part of handling the myth arc well includes being able to develop the character arcs within it. This episode gets full marks for showing how the theme of perception infuses Dean’s and Castiel’s stories. I did miss Sam’s story not getting the same kind of attention, as I dearly would like to know if my perception of the weakness of his motivation for not looking for Dean is right on target, because we cannot fully trust Sam’s perception.
Is it possible the angels are up to no good and are playing with Sam’s perceptions? Are my questions about Sam’s personal arc the very ones the writers want me to have? I hope the answer is yes, but so far, I don’t have the kind of story beats that are driving my perceptions of Dean’s and Castiel’s arcs. I think the writers left letting the audience in on Sam’s story line in season six too late, to that season’s detriment. I hope they aren’t going down the same path this year.
We did get a really good look at how Dean’s and Cas’ perceptions are both empowering them and weakening them, depending on whether the perception draws on a strong point or a weak spot. The episode starts with a great hint Dean may not be able to trust what he thinks he knows when he is not sure whether he’s seeing or hallucinating Castiel. Sam shows he’s trying his best to support Dean when he tells him he can’t get caught up in survivor’s guilt. Dean’s weak point has always been his willingness to hold himself to an impossible standard when it comes to saving people. He’s never been able to let himself off the hook when it comes to his own perceived failings.
And he is sure he failed his friend. It is perfectly in character for Dean to ignore Castiel’s repeated point that he may not be able to pass through the portal. Dean overrides Castiel’s rather foreboding “If it doesn’t work, thank you for everything,” with a firm “No one gets left behind!” The elder Winchester’s plot line is so opposite to Sam’s as Dean sweeps away any desire for a hallmark goodbye moment that I can only hope this symmetry has a clear purpose we will come to understand.
There is definitely symmetry to Dean’s reunions with the characters he loves. Not only did he have a disconcerting reconnection with Sam, he now has a less than satisfying reunion with Cas. His gut tells him something is off about his friend’s story. The writers give us some great foreshadowing when Cas says, “I’m dirty,” and Dean replies, “Purgatory will do that to you.”
The scene is a great contrast to Dean‘s flashback scene with Benny, when the vampire says softly, “You got a lot of trust in you, brother.” In Dean’s eyes, Benny has earned that trust, which makes his growing lack of trust in Cas all the more poignant. Are Dean’s perceptions of his friends’ motives sound? Who should he be trusting? I’m very happy to wait and allow this story to play out, in a way that I’m finding difficult with Sam, because it is so clear any doubts I have are there for a reason and will be explored.
In fact, we got some great exploration in this episode. Dean’s gut pings when Cas explains he doesn’t remember how he got out of Purgatory. Dean knows Cas could not have fought his way out alone, so it stands to reason he had some help. He may not know the facts, but Dean’s intuition seldom lets him down. He’s sure enough something is wrong in the state of Denmark to tell his brother, “I’m saying something else happened.”
However, Dean is also sure he is responsible for Cas staying behind in Purgatory. In typical Dean fashion, he shows his feelings by confronting his friend with a firm but revealing, “I did not leave you!” What Dean does not expect is for Castiel to understand Dean’s real feelings and say incredulously, “So you think this is your fault?” Clearly, the two men have different perceptions of what happened.
Castiel gently tells Dean fault doesn’t come into why he didn’t escape through the portal; it was will. His free will. And Dean cannot see that because a part of him is refusing to see that. Cas tells him, “You remember it the way you need to.” Dean’s overdeveloped sense of responsibility was shaped by his dad, as we saw in “Something Wicked.” Even when Dean was about ten, John blamed him for not handling the situation properly, for not saving Sam, for not saving all the people the shtriga would go on to kill. Dean’s fallback position is that if something goes wrong, he let it go wrong somehow.
Castiel challenges this perception when he makes Dean take another look at his memory of leaving Purgatory. Dean looks past his insecurities to finally see Castiel made his own decision to stay. It’s a wonderful look at Dean’s perception of himself and how he is still shaped by his fear of abandonment and his need to prove to his father he is worthy and he can save people. But Dean has another perception in play and that is his feeling there’s something hinky in Castiel’s return. Now that he’s realized he can’t necessarily trust his perceptions, will he continue to trust that one?
The writers really up the stakes on that question as we are whisked away with Castiel to meet a new angel in a new area of heaven. Naomi (played by Amanda Tapping) has the same air of institutional nastiness Dolores Umbridge has in Harry Potter. It seems Castiel cannot trust his perceptions, either, because he’s being controlled in some way by a mysterious and rather ominous group of angels. This group rescued Castiel to make him an unknowing Winchester mole, thus proving Dean’s perceptions of hinkiness are true, and Crowley’s perception there is no power grid left in heaven is false.
It’s all very intriguing. Castiel coming back at less than full power and under the control of more powerful angels nicely takes care of the deus ex machina problem he sometimes brings to the story. Given that we also got strong performances from all the supporting actors—Crowley is a real joy as he shows just how much of a Big Bad he can be while remaining completely charming—the episode should have left me delighted and chomping at the bit for more.
The chomping at the bit part is true—it will be a long two weeks to the next instalment in this saga. There is no question the show has been energized by Jeremy Carver’s vision. What is it, exactly, that didn’t quite work for me?
Well, first is that there was little development of Sam and Dean’s shared arc, despite the strong emotions and hurtful words in the last episode. But it’s not unusual for the show to expose subterranean Winchester issues and then have the boys bury them in shallow ground, so they can burst through again whenever the writers want. I hope there is more exploration, as I was not at all satisfied the fight in “Southern Comfort” actually cleared the air, but I can wait.
The more troubling aspect of “A Little Slice of Kevin” for me is the lack of Sam and Dean exploration meant the weight of the emotional exploration fell to Dean and Castiel, and those scenes felt overwritten. I felt that if the picture went blank and I could only hear the final scene between the two, I would have gotten every nuance the writers wanted, because they spelled everything out concretely in dialogue. There was no space left for Jensen Ackles or Misha Collins to find their own way to convey what their characters were feeling. And with these actors, that’s a shame.
Eric Kripke noted that he started Supernatural thinking he was using the actors to tell urban ghost stories and quickly realized he was using urban ghost stories to tell the stories of the characters. He struck gold with his casting of first Sam and Dean and then Castiel. Jensen Ackles, Jared Padalecki and Misha Collins know their characters and they know how to read between the lines to deliver emotional beats.
For example, there was no need in season four for Sam to state he was struggling with the need for demon blood when he left Dean for Ruby and stalked her over to the bed, eying her veins as he justified what he was doing. We saw it in his body movements and in his eyes. In season five, there was no need for Dean to tell Jo he finally saw her as an adult he could have gotten involved with just as he had to help her kill herself; we saw it in his kiss.
Emotional scenes do not benefit from overwriting—they are much more effective when the actors find the contradictions and the nuances and play them. I felt like I was getting Cliff’s Notes on Dean when he outright stated to Cas he felt guilty for “failing you like every other Godforsaken thing I care about!” When Cas replies that he felt the need to do penance and says to Dean, “You can’t save everyone, my friend, though you try,” I believe these are the emotions and perceptions these characters have—but the lines are written so on the nose, the scene loses some power because it gets a little . . . emo, which is the danger of overwriting.
I much prefer Supernatural when I have to look into the actors’ eyes and watch their body language to add to the spoken words. And these actors, especially Jensen Ackles, can and have delivered emotional scenes in spades, so there’s no excuse for not trusting them to find the emotional notes. The writing is a little out of balance right now, as we don’t get quite enough to follow Sam’s arc and get a little too much on Dean’s.
“A Little Slice of Kevin” stills sets up the major arcs of the season very nicely, and I am now extremely intrigued with the myth arc, so it is far from a fail. I enjoyed the episode overall and look forward to the next, so season eight still gets a thumbs up from me.