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.
This 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.
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.
Dean 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.
Crowley’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.
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.
I 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.
What did you think? Are you happy with the set up for season eight?