Supernatural premiered its eighth season at its new and improved timeslot Wednesday evening and what a return it was. New showrunner (and returning writer) Jeremy Carver penned the episode, giving viewers an excellent indication of the tone of the new season. In almost all respects, it wasn’t just reassuring. It was downright exciting. Not only can I not wait for the next episode, I already love one of the new recurring characters. My mixed feelings on the other raises one of the only red flags I felt in the taut and compelling “There’s Something About Kevin.”
Let’s start with Dean. Dean’s personal journey has been centered on trying to reconcile his fierce warrior side with his need to have and protect relationships. John Winchester insisted his eldest son do what he could not himself: be the perfect caretaker of Sam and the perfect hunter. An episode as early as “Something Wicked” in season one showed the pressure Dean was under to never slip up in either role. And since these two roles do not play well together, they pull Dean apart, with one or the other side winning the struggle at any given time. I’ve always felt Dean’s personal journey will finally end when he learns how to reconcile his capacity for love with his capacity for violence.
But that will not be any time soon. Last season Dean’s warrior side had great difficulty seeing the value of what he does, because he was depressed over the loss of so many important relationships. The side of him which values relationships was at the forefront, but unfortunately with a sense of despair that prevented forward movement. Dramatically, it’s a tough spot to stick a character in for any length of time.
Carver took note of that sense of Dean being stuck and decided to use Purgatory as a place to refocus and reenergise Dean. Alone in a place which rewards aggression with survival, the elder Winchester allows a primal side of himself to emerge. Without relationships to balance and guilt to shoulder, he drops the existential angst and accepts the maxim of kill or be killed.
Jensen Ackles absolutely nails this version of Dean—not only because he brings a palpable sense of edgy tension to the character, but also because we have seen hints of this Dean before. He’s the guy who could climb off the rack in hell and become the star pupil in torture. Dean has dark areas and I found it believable Purgatory feels very pure to him, because he can allow these primal instincts free reign without his caretaker side interfering with guilt.
Yet at the same time, the part of Dean that values relationships so highly is still there. He forms an unlikely friendship in the Purgatory fox hole with a charismatic vampire called Benny. In Purgatory, the friendship helps Dean survive. But back in the real world? Right from the premiere, we can see how complicated this friendship is going to be for both characters.
And speaking of Benny, what an introduction for his character. One of Supernatural’s strengths has been its great supporting cast. From Fred Lehne’s Yellow Eyed Demon to Kurt Fuller’s Zachariah, these characters were charismatic, complicated and much missed when they met their demise, even if we cheered their ends. The supporting characters who managed to survive more than a season to become part of the Winchester extended family were compelling from the get go, with Castiel being the best example. Benny’s entrance into the story suggests he’s going to join the list of memorable characters—and perhaps be very difficult to classify as friend or foe.
Dean and Benny’s first meeting illustrates what drives the engine of their story: they need something from each other. The hug they give each other when they separate back on earth allows further shading: they genuinely like each other. Foxhole friendships are intense. Their friendship looks set to cause both characters problems, as they each have other loyalties. Dean already feels he has to lie to Sam about his new friend and I’ve no doubt Benny’s vampire nature and possible ties to the Alpha Vamp will cause him difficulty in keeping his promise to Dean to keep his nose clean.
As if these issues were not interesting enough, Benny also hints that Dean has to work at keeping his own self clean now that he’s not in Purgatory. Dean claims he doesn’t regret anything he had to do, but he’s clearly reluctant to share too much with Sam. Some of what he doesn’t want to share involves Castiel and we can already see guilt creeping back on Dean’s shoulders. What happened to Cas? Were Dean and Benny involved? Questions, questions and all of them intriguing. Well done, Carver.
That brings me to Sam, which is the most problematic of the personal story lines. Based on the premiere, I have a lot of faith that Carver knows what he’s doing—but Sam deciding not to look for Dean is a surprising turn in this story.
Sam has made surprising decisions before—collaborating with demon Ruby being one. One of the underlying reasons for those decisions has been a trait Sam shares with his father: a tendency to obsession. We’ve seen Sam obsess over Jess’s death, tracking down Lilith, saving Dean—his obsessive nature has driven many of his actions just as they drove John Winchester’s.
That trait makes it very surprising that Sam’s reaction to Dean’s disappearance is to drive off aimlessly and decide to start over without looking for his brother. While it is true John was able to recognise his own obsession with revenge and make a change, the change was to save his son, not walk away from him. The love he had for his children was a powerful motivating force, and even with that, John’s death meant he did not have to try to suppress that tendency to obsession over time.
Sam, on the other hand, appears to have so successfully suppressed his tendency to obsess on saving what he loves that his reunion with Dean is awkward. The hug the brothers share is less heartfelt than the farewell hug between Dean and Benny. That’s not to say it has been established Sam does not care, but just that he doesn’t appear to be bowled over with relief his brother is back. His emotions have many shadings: relief mixed with guilt mixed with defiance mixed with . . . well, it’s not clear yet.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing we don’t quite know what Sam is feeling or why. The story line may well develop in unexpected and compelling ways. But I did not feel the same degree of being swept up and carried along as I did with Dean and Benny’s story.
One reason I love Supernatural is for the emotional truths the writers embed into the relationship between the brothers. Sam and Dean’s relationship is the engine that drives the show. A change to the way Sam views that relationship is a change to the core of the show.
That’s why I find the kinds of questions I have about Sam’s story line are potentially more problematic than intriguing, unlike my questions about Dean. I don’t recognize this Sam yet. He’s lost someone he loves, but has no body to confirm what happened, and his reaction is to give up and start over. My experience with that kind of loss suggests the family members find it very very difficult to move on, because without a body, there is hope. Like Schrödinger’s cat, Dean may be alive until proof is found he is dead. I would expect Sam to hang onto hope because the moment hope dies is the moment, for him, Dean dies.
Sam, however, seems to have given up hope rather easily, considering he’s a hunter. And in giving up hope on Dean, he also turned his back on Kevin—which seems odd. Possibly we are looking at a man who is mired in grief and having a breakdown and that breakdown fueled his decisions. I’ve seen this argument made in a few places. The only issue I have with it is I don’t yet see the hints about a breakdown.
I think it’s just as possible Sam’s moving on will be presented as a healing move on his part and that he has matured and is in a really good place—a place he resents being displaced from through Dean’s return. If that’s the road the story takes, I think it will be very problematic. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to hope for as a viewer in that case. Should I want Sam to have his new life and move on from Dean? Is it a good thing narratively for Sam not to need anything from his brother? What drives his story if he doesn’t? Has he resolved his personal journey?
Sam’s story set up may be gutsy, but it also feels dangerous. Dean and Benny both need something from the other. Dean and Castiel both need something from the other. I need to know Sam also needs something from Dean, or why would I hope to have Sam back riding shotgun in the Impala? There are other choices Dean can make in hunting partner. Sam and Dean’s relationship has always been special—not just because they are brothers but also because they each need the other to stay in touch with their humanity. I think the story needs to keep it that way.
I’m not particularly drawn yet to Sam’s girlfriend, Amelia. It’s difficult to like someone who responds to an accident with: “Maybe if you were such an upstanding guy you wouldn’t have hit him in the first place?” As we learn more about her, however, we may understand why Carver chose to introduce her this way. I really enjoyed Kevin Tran and of course Crowley was his usual wonderful self.
I think the premiere was very strong and I will reserve judgement on Sam’s story. I love the quest structure of the season—I’ve always seen this show as a character study wrapped up in a hero quest narrative which is deconstructed as much as constructed by the story. Quests on Supernatural are never simple or simplistic. I’m on board for the ride.