Supernatural’s mid-season finale packed an emotional punch, as showrunner Jeremy Carver promised. Sam and Dean both made decisions based on their own perceptions of the other’s emotional state which ended up biting them in the rear, leaving the brothers angry and estranged. The episode was designed to keep fans talking over Hellatus and will succeed at that. What it doesn’t do as well is address the issues that have plagued the season, from the way Sam’s flashbacks drag down the show to the poor characterization at the heart of the fraying of the boys’ bond.
I’ll start with the episode itself, as there is undeniably a lot of good stuff there. The story layered betrayal upon betrayal as Sam and Dean reveal how little they trust each other and how angry they are with each other over hurts years old. Jared and Jensen are fantastic in selling the boys’ anger and pain. Sam throws the first emotional punch as he tells Dean he set an emotionally unstable hunter (Martin) to trail Benny because “no hunter worth his salt” would let a vampire run around unobserved.
It’s an odd perspective for Sam to take, as he was the one who argued Lenore and her nest should be trusted and allowed to live their life without hassle and, much more recently, was completely fine with letting Kate the werewolf wander off with no supervision at all, despite there being little reason to believe she will be able to resist her werewolf nature when she turns. Sam was fine last season with trusting Amy to continue on her way after she clearly showed she was willing to kill when her son needed the right kind of food.
Sam’s decision to have Benny trailed is so poorly supported by his past characterization, I can only read it as a further play on his part to show Dean how angry he is Dean cares so much about Benny. Sam ended his fight with Dean in “Southern Comfort” by stating he just may be the hunter who kills Benny and clearly, Sam had no intention of dropping this line of thought.
As a way to communicate that he’s hurt Dean seems to have found another and maybe better brother, however, it has a lot of drawbacks. So far neither Dean nor the audience has had a real glimpse of Sam’s emotional state when he decided not to look for Dean nor has Sam shown a glimmer of gratitude that Benny helped his brother survive Purgatory. The scene has not been well set to feel torn when Sam sets his sights on Benny. I like the character very much and am not prepared to see him as cannon fodder in a Winchester War of the Roses.
Both boys do try to keep their differing attitudes toward solving the Benny mystery under control. Dean agrees with Sam the situation in Louisiana needs investigating and Sam over rules Martin to allow Dean a couple of hours to talk to Benny to see what may be happening. But the underlying emotions from the “Southern Comfort” fight are just under the surface and soon break through when Dean asks Sam to trust him about Benny.
Sam decides Dean is too close to Benny to be able to trust his instincts, while ignoring his own emotions were involved when he set an unstable hunter loose on Benny’s trail. Dean moves from voicing his discomfort with Sam using Martin to passive aggressively bringing up Benny has yet to betray his trust. Neither brother is listening to the other, which makes for some great drama.
Sam works with Martin’s decision to knock Dean out by handcuffing him to the radiator, so he and Martin can kill Benny without Dean’s interference. Upon his escape, Dean sends a text message that purports to be a call for help by Amelia to get Sam out of the way, so he and Benny can hunt the real killer vampire. Sam ends the episode furious that Dean would hurt him to save Benny and that his brother regards Benny’s life as having equal value to a human’s. Dean ends the episode upset that Sam cannot see Dean had a good reason to be loyal to his friend and killing Benny just for being a vampire is not an option for him. The reversal of positions would be interesting if I understood why Sam has changed his tune on what defines a monster.
I do understand that the fights are meant to be old resentments dressed up in new clothes. Dean has always been afraid of his family leaving him and resented Sam’s tendency to run when he’s stressed. In “Dark Side of the Moon,” Dean’s special memories were of making Sam and his mother feel happy and supported. Sam’s special memories were of times he was able to leave his family behind. Sam tells Dean he sees family differently than his brother, because he has no memories of a normal family life. Dean’s retort is that he is Sam’s family— this fight hits a raw nerve between the brothers, then and now.
Sam has his own guilt about his personal issues impacting his ability to hunt. Sam already feels guilty his new life came at Kevin Tran’s expense and no doubt there is some guilt about not looking for Dean underlying his anger at Dean’s attitude to Amelia, though that aspect has not surfaced yet in the main story or in the flashbacks.
There are lots of talking points here; writer Daniel Loflin hit a lot of emotional notes. But the wall between the brothers has a lot of holes in it, which may not have sunk this episode, but did make it resonate less than it could have. The season has Dean apparently holding on to every resentment he’s ever had concerning Sam, including ones that have never been presented onscreen, such as blaming Sam for being soulless.
He doesn’t seem to have processed any of his feelings about Sam and Ruby since season four, and to me, this causes story dissonance with previous seasons. Dean had an emotional arc in season five that centred on his feelings about Sam choosing Ruby over him. “Swan Song” showed him having processed a lot more than this season suggests.
So I have issues with the writers presenting Dean as being in the same place he was in the penultimate episode of season four, especially when it is possible for Dean to have issues with Sam in a way that fits. Dean’s fear of abandonment and hurt at Sam’s different definition of family have ample support in the story and are enough explanation for what’s motivating Dean. I don’t understand why the writers feel the need to throw the kitchen sink into the mix—it doesn’t strengthen the story. Dean has always needed family and he’s always placed Sam at the centre of his family.
The issues with Sam’s story are even deeper. It’s never been more apparent why one of Sam’s flashbacks should have shown us his emotional state when he ran instead of looking for Dean. I need to hurt for both boys as they vent their hurt disguised as anger at each other, especially when Benny is a target. I had no difficulty understanding both Winchesters in previous seasons when they had different perceptions and goals. But this time, we’re missing a major story point.
Having to fanwank Sam’s feelings about Dean gets less and less satisfying the more flashbacks we have to watch about Sam and Amelia. This episode suggested I should find the dissolution of the relationship because of Don’s return really sad, because of what Sam was losing. But last episode suggested the relationship was an escape so both Sam and Amelia didn’t have to face their losses. It’s difficult to go from flashbacks that present the relationship as living a lie to flashbacks that want me to embrace soap opera.
Sam’s flashbacks have slowed down the episodes they appear in and the season so far, because they go over old ground without advancing the present. Not only has Sam not had any epiphanies about his relationship, “Citizen Fang” ends with Sam still deeply caught up in it, as if the audience is breathlessly waiting to find out if Amelia really chooses Don. I’m hoping he doesn’t have an evil twin to further complicate her choice.
To my mind, the end of the episode would have done a lot better to reference the myth arc in some way. I was delighted Jeremy Carver revived the idea of a season shaping quest, because a quest is a great way to give a season momentum. Season seven in particular suffered from a lack of focus and movement in the middle that hurt the season as a whole. Season eight hasn’t done a much better job on imbuing the quest with a sense of urgency.
We may well pick up with a myth arc heavy episode in January, but giving the tablet story line so little development half way through the season does not bode well. I wouldn’t be surprised if many viewers ended this episode thinking the season’s quest involves Sam hunting Benny down while Dean tries to stop him, rather than anything involving Crowley. The quest has not yet been well used and times a wastin’.
Will I be back in January? Absolutely. The emotions between the boys were very well played this episode. Jared and Jensen always make me care. I’m still hopeful the second half of the season will weave together the strands of the first half in a satisfying way. It’s just a shame the brothers’ bond has been so thoroughly broken by weak story telling in Sam’s flashbacks. At this point, I need to be convinced Sam should stay hunting with Dean. I no longer take it as a given, from either brother’s point of view.