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TV Review: Supernatural – “Survival of the Fittest”

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I felt a little trepidation going into Supernatural’s finale, given last week’s lacklustre episode, but for the most part, “Survival of the Fittest” held together well as an episode and set up some interesting story lines for next season. However, the finale had some flaws, which not surprisingly echoed the flaws of season seven itself.

The Set Up:

Despite its problems, season seven had many excellent episodes—really, it fell down most on the structure of the overall arcs. However, that kind of structural weakness shows up in finales, which have to pay off all the arcs as well as set up the next season.

Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki as Sam and Dean WinchesterThis season started well, giving viewers a strong taste of Sam’s damage (courtesy of the always excellent Mark Pellegrino as Lucifer). Balancing Sam’s pain with a beautifully written and shot moment between the brothers reinforcing their importance to each other set up a great dynamic—which the show then largely squandered by forgetting about balance from then on.

Instead of threading Sam’s pain throughout the season, his arc was disjointed, with large stretches in the middle where it wasn’t touched. The eventual payoff episodes were excellent, but a soggy middle never helps sell a story.

Dean had a similar issue with his personal arc, though rather than a soggy middle, his suffered from spinning its wheels. I understand very well why Dean spent much of the season depressed and going past flirting with into embracing alcoholism. But I don’t understand why the story never progresses. With Dean drinking on the job all day long and beginning to lie to Sam about it, the issue is on the table and needs real exploration.

The Leviathans appeared to have real potential as the Big Bads when they were first introduced. But the writers failed to think through the implications of making Leviathans so powerful and with no investment in Sam and Dean. They could not write scenes with the Winchesters interacting with head Leviathan Dick Roman, which meant Roman failed to come alive the way past villains like Azazel did. The odd pacing of the main arc didn’t help, as the Leviathans largely dropped out of the story until the final four episodes.

On the plus side, removing Bobby and Castiel from the playing board was a risky move that resulted in some fine drama. Bobby’s death and Castiel’s return were both excellent episodes, though the long term impact on the show is yet to be determined.

The Finale:

Despite the issues with the arcs, much of the finale was excellent. Misha Collins’ Castiel is a joy to watch, as the damaged angel forces Dean to work with his loopiness. And while Castiel is amusing, Collins also adds a serious undertone, as the angel tries to offer support while flinching from the idea of encountering more violence—mostly, we find out, because he’s afraid he will cause more destruction.

Jensen Ackles, Jared Padalecki and Misha CollinsDean doesn’t really understand what Castiel is running from and tries to use the idea of responsibility to push Castiel back in the fight. It’s only when he finally accepts he can’t that he and the angel find a way to hear each other. Standing beside the Impala (yes, Baby’s back!), Cas tells Dean he shouldn’t even want the angel on his team, as he’s cursed. Dean’s response is Castiel is the only player left on the bench at the bottom of the ninth, so yeah, he’ll take him. But then, he snorts and tells Castiel he’s no more cursed than any of them and is Dean supposed to be a symbol of good luck?

His words are a clear indication he has forgiven Castiel for his lies and hurting Sam. Supernatural’s heroes are all flawed and all have had to ask forgiveness at some point. Castiel realizes Dean still considers him part of Team Free Will and that empowers him as reproaches did not. I loved the writing here, as the definition and cost of being a hero has always been an integral part of the series.

Mark Sheppard and James Patrick StuartCrowley’s story was also very successful. The King of Hell has no problem interacting with both Roman and the Winchesters, which results in scenes which crackle with wit and tension as everyone tries to figure out who is double-crossing whom. Crowley is both funny and menacing, and I loved it when the boys have to decide which side the demon is on at the moment, knowing they can never really trust him.

Bobby’s part of the tale was a little less successful. The poor pacing of the season meant the final four episodes were so jam packed, we didn’t get a good look at the evolution of Sam’s, Dean’s or Bobby’s feelings about the hunter’s decision to escape his reaper. Each episode moved the arc along, but not by showing the changes through interactions among the characters.

Instead, Sam switched abruptly from being open to working with a ghost to being sure Bobby was turning vengeful. Dean’s feelings jumped around less, but the character still made little attempt to actually talk to Bobby, which is a surprise given how much he loves his surrogate father. And we were not shown Bobby’s internal struggle to keep his focus on his boys (the reason he stayed) and not stray into vengeance. Instead, the audience was asked to accept that ghosts and vengefulness are a given, despite the boys’ mother being able to stay a ghost for years and able to help her sons.

Nonetheless, Jim Beaver is a fine actor and the hunter is such a beloved character, I was still very sad in this episode when Bobby tells the boys he’s done and they need to burn his flask. The looks on Sam’s and Dean’s faces show how devastated they are at having to be the ones to end Bobby, though at least they don’t have to hunt him down.

I still find it a shame the arc didn’t get the kind of development that would have allowed this goodbye to stand side by side in pathos with Bobby’s death. But it didn’t and I’m not sure the payoff was enough to justify disturbing Bobby’s send off in “Death’s Door.” I think it’s a shame Bobby’s final word to the boys is no longer “Idjits.”

I also found the Leviathan take down to be a mixed bag. I loved the return of the Impala and cheered as it crashes right through Sucracorp’s gates. But again due to trying to cram too much plot into too few episodes, Sam and Dean gathered the blood and the bones a little too easily to generate much tension. I found Kevin Tran to be mostly extraneous to this week’s plot, which is a shame because Osric Chau has been a welcome addition to the cast. And the final showdown between Dean and Roman fails to establish Roman as a really menacing villain, which isn’t surprising since that should have been established long since.

What does work is the final reveal that Dean and Castiel have been pulled into Purgatory along with Roman. That was a surprise and opens up all kinds of possibilities for next season. Purgatory looks very frightening and I would welcome a chance to actually see one of the boys’ experiences in these alternate vistas, instead of just hear about them. Sam’s devastation at being alone is completely believable and offers a lot of dramatic potential, because Sam has never dealt well in the past when he is separated from Dean.

The Grade:

I give the finale an A- for being able to tie together a disjointed season and offer such a tantalizing glimpse for next season in the I hope capable hands of new show runner Jeremy Carver. On that note, there are some things I hope Carver keeps in mind.

The Castiel Problem:

Castiel was created for the Apocalypse arc and since that story line ended, he’s been a bit of a problem. In his original arc, his power was limited because the archangels were much stronger than he was. With the archangels gone, his power has too often leaked the tension out of the brothers’ predicaments.

He was also created as Dean’s new relationship to balance the one Sam was forming with Ruby. With Ruby long gone, Castiel unbalances Sam and Dean, because the angel has no real relationship with Sam and Sam has no equivalent friend.

Jensen Ackles, Misha Collins and Rachel MinerI thought the writers did a good job of addressing these issues when they brought Castiel back in the second half of this season. Damaging Cas’ psyche and making him unreliable was an excellent move. I also liked that Castiel cared very much he had hurt Sam and that Sam found it easier to forgive the angel than Dean did. It looked like Sam and Castiel were forging a relationship of their own, which I think is necessary if Castiel is to be an important part of the show again.

With this in mind, I’m not sure the writers made the best choice in trapping Dean and Castiel together in Purgatory. We already know they have a relationship and we know Dean has forgiven Cas. Strengthening Castiel and Dean while Dean and Sam are separated has the potential to make Castiel even more of an unbalancing agent on the show’s main relationship—Sam and Dean. If Sam goes it alone while Dean gets even closer to Cas, there is a risk Sam will start to seem a bit of a third wheel. If Sam gets a new relationship of his own to explore, the writers risk weakening the strongest aspect of the show: Sam and Dean’s chemistry.

With the show moving to Wednesday nights, Supernatural has the potential to grow in a way most shows in their 8th season do not. It would be a shame not to have the Winchesters’ chemistry front and centre to hook new viewers. I think the separation may yield some wonderful drama, but it has to be built on the premise of the series: Sam and Dean’s dysfunctional relationship is also their and the world’s salvation.

I wonder if it might not have been a better choice to have Dean alone in Purgatory, and Sam and Castiel back on earth trying to get him back. Sam and Castiel’s relationship would then grow, while Dean would have to face himself. He knows he’ll try and survive to save the world. He’ll try and survive to save Sam. But will he try and survive to save himself?

I’ll leave the story telling to Carver and Co. and hope we get a wonderful pay off to an intriguing set up. With all its flaws, season seven ended with a bang, with me counting the days until October.

Your Thoughts:

What did you think? Are you happy with the set up for season eight?

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About Gerry Weaver

  • Hannah

    I very much liked this article and agreed with pretty much all of it, especially your analysis of this uneven season. However, I believe that Dean was left all alone in Purgatory at the end of the episode. Cas was there, but then he was gone. Either he left on his own, or was taken out of Purgatory(by whoever keeps resurrecting him). I do hope that Cas ends up helping Sam and forging some sort of a relationship with him, because you’re right that if Cas sticks around, there has to be more balance there. The main thing I’m worried about for season 8 is the show losing focus on the intensity of the Sam and Dean relationship, that’s the reason I watch, and I know I’m not alone in that. I am absolutely not interested in a Dean and Cas show with occasional Sam.

  • http://randomlyralph.tumblr.com Ralph

    I agree with everything that’s written here, especially about Dick and the Leviathans not being able to be as menacing as they were intended to be.

  • Gerry

    Hannah and Ralph, thanks so much for your comments! I always love Supernatural discussion.

    Hannah, you may well be right that Cas vanishing means he went back to earth. I hope so. I wasn’t sure that was the case because when Dean said they had to get out of Purgatory, Castiel said it was more likely they would be eaten. I thought he vanished to take a look around. But we’ll have to wait until next season to know and I have to give kudos to Sera for ending on such an intriguing note.

    Ralph, I think it’s really too bad James Patrick Stuart never got a chance to really show his stuff, because he was excellent in the episode with Charlie. We needed to see that kind of up close interaction with Sam and Dean. Somehow the writers needed to find a way to bring the three characters together occasionally. The scene with Dean and Roman in Death’s Door was as close as they got and that was chilling. We needed more of that.

  • r.t.

    This is an excellent article. I strongly agree with everything you’ve said. The season started off great and then I was disappointed. Especially with the finale. Sam and Dean’s relationship is what got me hooked from day one and even though I’ve kept watching the show, I’ve felt very detached from it unlike the earlier seasons. Sam does seem like a third wheel with Castiel’s character around which seems forced. If season 8 continues to be this way, I’m going to lose interest altogether and I don’t want that to happen.

  • Gerry

    Hi, r.t., thank for commenting. I liked the season, but did feel the arcs had some pacing issues. I love Sam and Dean’s relationship as well. I also like Castiel and felt he added a lot to the episodes he was in this year. I’m more concerned about how he will fit in next season if Sam and Dean spend a lot of time apart. Perhaps Carver will decide to get the boys back together quickly, or perhaps Castiel will be able to communicate with Sam. Lots of possibilities!

  • oicozzie

    I enjoyed season 7 more than 6 at the beginning when the Leviathans looked menacing but then they became boring corporate beings. Season 7 focused more on the secondary characters like Castiel..Bobby ..Garth, Charlie , Kevin the prophet, Monster mama Amy…Becky’s wedding to Sam and Dick Ramon..that I felt detached and became non interested in Supernatural as season 7 rolled by.
    Next season its the brothers a p a r t…so I will be skipping season 8.

  • Gerry

    Sorry to hear you won’t tune for season 8. I think the writers had a hard time with the overall arc this season and as you say, paid more attention to single episodes. I hope this changes for next season–Carver did very well as a showrunner on Being Human, so I have great hopes.

    For me, Bobby’s and Castiel’s relationships with the boys tell us a lot about Sam and Dean as well. I do agree though that I could have had a lot less Felicia Day, good as she was, at that point in the season. The time was needed elsewhere in the narrative. And the Becky episode misfired.

    I’ll be front and centre for season 8, though. For me there is lots to explore and I don’t expect Sam and Dean to be separated for long. If Dean confronts his depression and apathy and Sam gets a chance to rescue his brother, the story line will have a great pay off.

  • Matthew

    what im hoping ist that they will address is all the plot holes.. what about the remaining dicks? there were 3, the other levianthans, and the after effects of the testing they were doing on all the humans/shipments of the food and engineering which basically made everyone slugs. aside from that the potential for being in purgatory will be amazing, imagine possibly running into bobby there bc dont you think that some if not all ghosts who are left behind go there?, fighting tons of old monsters from the past seasons, the cameos and revisiting of some of the better ones would def make me geek out. ( im personally hoping for more dick as i loved his character and wished it was developed alot more) bring back Death as he is always welcome, and of course bring back Mark Pellegrino’s Lucifer, i thought sam being cured was a little too easy after how “badly” he was being affected by his hell wall crumbling. anyways cant wait for season 8. good article. :)

  • Gerry

    Thanks so much! I appreciate the comments you all leave.

    Matthew, I’m hoping we get lots of exploration of the potential of Purgatory–though for me, none of what you mention are plot holes, as a plot hole suggests something germane left unexplained and at this point, the remaining Levis and the doped up humans may be explored next season.

    Actually, I doubt the doping will be followed up on, and I’m fine with that. We don’t really need to see people shaking off the effects and can surmise that is what is happening without it being a specific plot point.

    I do hope to see Sam taking care of the headless Levis to some extent. And I really hope Carver sees the potential in showing Dean in Purgatory. I love the idea of seeing past monsters the Winchesters have dispatched. But most of all, I’d love to see Dean having to decide if he’s worth fighting for, realizing he is and then doing just that, so he comes back to earth re-energized and knowing why he does what he does. That would be a great use of Purgatory, furthering the overall season arc and Dean’s personal arc at the same time.

    I only want to see more Dick if he interacts directly with Dean, the way he never did last season. Otherwise, I’ve had enough of a villain I never really engaged with. But big yes to Death–love his scenes! Not sure how Lucifer can be integrated in again–it would have to be as the actual arch angel and not a hallucination and we’ve already had an apocalypse story line. But who knows?

    I do think we’ll get a little more of Sam recovering from the broken wall and that will be very welcome. In the time apart, I’d love to see Sam putting himself back together to fight for Dean and Dean putting himself together to fight for himself and Cas helping Sam find Purgatory.

    Yes, I’m looking forward to next season!