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TV Review: Supernatural – “Man’s Best Friend With Benefits”

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Supernatural has been on a roll since it came back from hiatus, but the show stumbled last night with “Man’s Best Friend With Benefits.” As far as I could tell, the reason for the episode was to justify the title, and, unsurprisingly, that led to weak writing, poor characterization and overdone jokes. The scenes between the brothers played marginally better, but even those did not flow well from the end of last week’s excellent “Trial and Error.”

The episode was written by Brad Buckner and Eugenie Ross-Leming, the team responsible for the terrible “Route 666” in season one. They also wrote the disappointing “Shut Up Dr. Phil,” another episode centered on witches. Their writing in general tends toward catchy titles followed by clunky dialogue and pedestrian plots. Buckner and Ross-Leming’s history does not make them a natural choice to bring out the comedic aspects of beastiality, even with Jensen Ackles’ excellent comedic timing to draw on.

The plot centers around a policeman (James Frampton) from Sam and Dean’s past who turned to black magic after he worked a case with the brothers. He acquired a Doberman familiar whose alter ego is a lovely woman named Portia. Currently, he’s also acquired some terrible dreams in which he murders people—people who then turn up dead in real life.

Jared Padalecki as Sam WinchesterPortia texts Sam and Dean for help. The scene where Sam lets in Portia as a dog and tries to get Dean to agree to keep her overnight is one of the few really funny parts of the episode. Sadly, the plot soon devolves into scene after scene of Dean struggling not to make a beastiality joke, instead of the writers making one good joke and moving on to more important things, like filling in plot holes.

Why has Dean never heard of a familiar? We were just told last week he’s the best hunter in the world, especially strong in lore. Why does neither brother, but especially Dean, care they have uncovered covens of witches, some of which have to be up to no good? If James became obsessed with the dark arts, why is there not a good exploration of how that impacts him even as he tries to do good? And are witches really more squeamish about beastiality than Sam and Dean?

The writers try to play down the squick factor of James having sex with Portia with a scene where she lectures Dean on the bond she has with her witch. But given she’s wearing a dog collar, calls James master and can’t refuse a direct command, the squick factor is never far away. And since I don’t much care about James or Portia, that matters.

But those issues pale in comparison to how obvious it is to spot the bad guy. Buckner and Ross-Leming try to lay some red herrings with Philippe LeChat and the homicide detective, but from the moment Spencer is introduced, he may as well have a sign pointing to him with “Villain” on it, a la “Hunteri Heroici.” He not only appears shifty and untrustworthy, the hints he likes Portia are applied with a trowel. I found it very hard to believe Sam and Dean would take his word about witch powers unquestioningly. I don’t love the convention of the calls to Garth, but even that would have worked better than Sam and Dean looking naïve.

At least the episode has a few scenes where Sam and Dean discuss the decision made last week for Sam to do the trials. I was uneasy with the idea of only one brother doing the trials, as that makes it more difficult to service both leads’ stories. Not to say it’s impossible, of course, just harder than if the boys either jointly did the tasks or alternated them. But the way the choice played out in “Trial and Error,” my doubts were allayed.

Writer Andrew Dabb wisely avoided pitting the brothers against each other over the issue of competence. With boys only recently coming together after half a season of strife, the show doesn’t need to torpedo their shaky reconciliation already. Instead, Dabb deepened the exploration of the boys’ bond and the theme of free will.

Dean’s argument for taking on the trials is that whoever does them is fated to die in the end, as the past has shown them. Since one of them has to die, it may as well be him, because the only way he sees out of their life is in a body bag. Now that he knows Sam sees something different, he’s moved past his hurt and will support his brother the best way he knows how—by sacrificing himself for Sam’s happiness.

In turn, Sam insists on doing the trials because he does believe he and Dean can escape the hand of fate and dictate their own future. He believes Dean’s fatalism will make his death more likely, while his own belief in survival opens up that ending as a possibility. And he too has a dream for his brother—one where he shows Dean how to believe in his own worth.

It was lovely stuff and not centered on whether either brother was competent to do the tasks themselves.

Jensen Ackles and Jared PadaleckiI was not thrilled in this episode to see the issue devolve to a tense discussion in which Dean questions Sam’s competence and Sam questions Dean’s motives. Yes, Dean likes to be in control, but in season five, Dean decided Sam has incredible physical, intellectual and spiritual strength, and he could allow his younger brother to take the lead on Lucifer. Sam has already heard Dean say, “You’re not a kid anymore, Sam, and I can’t keep treating you like one. Maybe I got to grow up a little, too. I don’t know if we got a snowball’s chance. But… But I do know that if anybody can do it… it’s you.”

That scene from “Swan Song” meshes beautifully with the ending of “Trial and Error,” where Dean agrees not only to let Sam continue the trials, but also to allow for the possibility of defining their own lives.

The “Swan Song” scene doesn’t mesh so well with this episode and I’m not sure what happened between “Trial and Error” and “Man’s Best Friend With Benefits” to change the way the brothers view each other. The shift in tone smacks of contorting the plot to support Sam’s decision to lie to Dean about feeling sick. And I don’t believe any contortions are necessary to find ways for the brothers to lie to protect each other.

I did like the scene where Dean reaffirms to Sam he supports him and he knows they are stronger together. But the scene adds little to what we learned in “Trial and Error,” which handled this discussion far better. Hopefully, next week the series returns to form.

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About Gerry Weaver

  • DeansFamiliar

    The whole ‘start-stop-start-stop’ method of story lines is starting to get frustrating. I get that the writers are trying to build anticipation but throwing in these filler episodes isn’t helping. And BTW, Sam, you want to prove to Dean that you are not a burden and don’t need him to take care of you all the time. You want to prove that you can handle whatever comes with as much strength and courage as Dean does. You want to be as good a hunter as your big brother. You want Dean to be happy and not have to worry about you all the time. You hide the truth from him as a way of protecting him but also as a lame ass way of protecting yourself from having to deal with Dean’s inevitable, ‘I TOLD YOU SO!!” You want so badly to prove yourself to Dean and to show him that you can take care of him too. We get it. But apparently you don’t. Haven’t you noticed yet that something inevitably goes wrong? Either you make a stupid judgment call or get tricked or get hurt and Dean has to ride to your rescue yet again. The thing is, you should stop lying to him and realize and accept that Dean LIVES to take care of you. He LOVES protecting you. It’s who he is and what he was created to do, so let him do it and shut up about it. Lying to him doesn’t foster his trust in you. Lying to him isn’t protecting him from anything. Lying to him means he is’playing blind and wounded’ b/c by the time he finds out that something is wrong with you, he has to simultaneously fight the big bads while trying to figure out WTF is wrong with you and fix it. That puts him in a constant state of playing catch-up while trying to keep you both alive. By virtue of trying to show Dean you can take care of yourself, you do the exact opposite: you end up proving how deeply and profoundly you need Dean to take care of you. Who better than the Winchesters knows that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We get that you are trying to save Dean from his own self-fulfulling prophecy of dying with a gun in his hand by doing the 3 trials but he’ll only worry himself to death trying to make sure you are safe. Knowledge is power so tell him the truth; straight no chaser, and then sit back and watch Dean Winchester do what he does best: be a complete and utter badass hunter.

  • Hades

    I’m totally with Sam on not telling Dean about the blood coughing, Dean just claimed he trusted Sam (which I dont believe for a second) and Sam knows that Dean is just looking for an excuse to take over the trials himself. Telling Dean would only result in Dean running off to bad himself a hell hound. And I’m sorry but Dean’s ‘concern’ for Sam comes across more like a foot stamping child throwing a tantrum because he wanted to be the one doing the trials.

    Besides Dean would have done the exact same thing had it been him who was taking on the trials and coughing up blood he then would have claimed he was just trying not to worry Sam with it.

    I’m totally ok with Sam not telling Dean.

    As for Dean’s trust issues? so over it, if you dont trust anyone then go hunt by yourself of with your BFF Benny the Wonder Vamp.

    I have faith in Sam that if the hell gates are to be closed that he will come through and get it done, he is smart eniugh and strong enough and has proven himself to be a brilliant hunter (brains and brawn) especially over these last 3 episodes. Then I hope he goes finda a girl and sets up shop as Man of Letters.

    That way as the post above says Sam will be safe and Dean can go take care of his other pets Benny and Cas.

  • Gerry

    Hi Dean’sFamiliar and Hades! Thanks for reading and commenting.

    I don’t do the Sam’s girl or Dean’s girl thing myself–I love both boys and feel they usually develop both very well. I wasn’t as fond of Sam’s story line in the first half of the season, as I felt it was poorly told, with missing pieces needed to be there.

    However, I love the Man of Letters idea and understand why Sam identifies with it so strongly.

    I do understand why one brother doing the trials is so potentially polarizing, which is why I loved the way Sam and Dean talked about the subject in Trial and Error. Nothing about competence, just talking about their view of fate and free will, which is a thread running throughout the series.

    That’s why I thought the way these writers handled the subject was so clumsy. They changed it back to competence, as if Dean doesn’t trust Sam’s. We’ve already had the big trial that required Dean to let go of his little brother–Lucifer–and Dean did let go and did tell his brother how competent he knows him to be.

    My hope is the way the writers leaned on the competence instead of world view issue was due to their own competence and not the direction of the writers room.

    Because the way Dabb presented the trials decision in “Trial and Error” was much more interesting.

  • Brendan

    Dean has every right not to trust, he always gets thrown under the bus. Trust is earned. Sam has betrayed Dean so many times I can’t count them any more. He is lying again, and I am not OK with it. Dean would never leave Sam stranded and out cold, cuffed to a radiator in a dangerous situation on a hunt. That text was harmless and it put Sam in no danger.

  • Gerry

    Hi Brendan! The boys both done hurtful things in their time. I wouldn’t describe Dean’s text as harmless–it hurt Sam very much, even though Dean had context for why he sent it, just as Sam had context for why he left Dean out cold and cuffed.

    However, I do think there was a lot more exploration of Dean’s motivations and thoughts than Sam’s, so it would be nice to get more about Sam’s attitude to Benny.