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.
Portia 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.
I 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.