“Another year has passed me by….what kind of man have I become?” With those lyrics begins the story of Supernatural’s eighth season. The show’s always been defined by its music, and this is no exception: the Styx song “Man in Wilderness” sets the mood for the episode and, one might surmise, the coming season. What kind of man has Dean Winchester become during his year in Purgatory? The change he’s undergone (and change there is) seems to be the focus of the first episode of the season – “We Need To Talk About Kevin”- just as change in general seems to be the running theme of the upcoming season.
The change begins with the first few seconds of the episode, when the usual intro and flashbacks aren’t set to the nostalgic “Carry on My Wayward Son” that’s come to define Supernatural since the very beginning. Then, as a freaked out couple in Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness watches, Dean Winchester, bloody, grimy, and almost feral, appears in a flash of light. He’s back from Purgatory, and he’s a different man.
Last time Dean Winchester came back from the “dead,” he’d been in Hell. That time, the writers opted for relegating Dean’s tortures and regret to the back burner and focusing on Sam’s story. This time, though, it’s clearly Dean’s story, and an intriguing one at that. The parallel to season four’s “Lazarus Rising” is particularly striking, for the Dean that comes back from Purgatory is much different from the Dean that comes back from Hell. Both the change and the focus on Dean is heartening, for it suggests that the show is taking its characters seriously again.
This change is most evident in the first thing Dean does when he’s back: instead of looking for Sam, Dean makes a four day trip to a deserted graveyard to dig up the bones of his buddy Benny and release him from Purgatory. Benny, as we discover, is a vampire that Dean met and bonded with in Purgatory, and now they’ve escaped together. The exact depth of this bond becomes clear in the first scene of the two: the two part as friends, after giving each other a Winchester hug. Clearly, Dean’s changed, since he’s gone from killing monsters to hugging them.
This is followed by the long-awaited Winchester reunion. In the year Dean’s been gone, Sam has apparently settled down and found himself a dog and a girlfriend (whose house he sneaks out of for some mysterious reason). While the brothers’ reunion in “Lazarus Rising” was warm and heartfelt, this one is filled with heartbreak hanging in the air. Dean bursts in, violently checks if Sammy’s a monster, and only then gives him the warm Winchester hug that he’d also given Benny earlier in the episode. This scene is also the one that was released as a clip a week before the premiere, and so I discussed its implications in my last article. They haven’t changed since. All I can say is that the pain is almost tangible when, in response to Dean’s question “You did look for me, right?” Sam looks away with guilt. Sam’s clearly changed too – looking for his brother is what one might call the “Winchester way,” and it’s a path Sam doesn’t take. He’s settled down, and, most importantly, he doesn’t hunt anymore.
It’s a sharp contrast to Dean. While Sam’s found complacency, Dean’s found the exact opposite, and, luckily, the show takes the opportunity to explore Dean’s state of mind. Jensen Ackles, who plays Dean, alluded to The Hurt Locker as a parallel for this episode, and Ackles conveys it with brilliance: Dean is a soldier who’s spent the past year fighting for his life amid grey fog and rushes of adrenaline. He’s completely lost in the normal Sam’s been living in. There’s a particularly poignant scene in which Dean is standing, lost, looking at a vending machine like he doesn’t know what it is. The ease of whatever you want at your fingertips is something he doesn’t understand after a year of fighting for his life on a barren terrain.
All this suggests that the focus of the upcoming season will be on Dean. Dare we hope that he might finally get a storyline of his own? There’s definitely going to be more flashbacks to Purgatory, which seems to have liberated Dean: he calls the place “pure,” and it’s certainly let out all of hardened, steely nature Dean Winchester’s been reining back with the help of Sam and a sense of humanity. This bodes well for an exploration of Dean’s character, especially when coupled with the tantalizing mystery that is Dean’s relationship with Benny.
I admit I was among the many fans nervous about this Benny character. Working with a monster is so unlike Dean, and seemed to bode badly for Castiel. And, admittedly, Castiel’s not in this episode, which still raises questions about where he is and whether Benny’s replaced him. But I’m not worried, because Benny seems to be such a new, intriguing, and important addition to the show. To begin with, it’s nice to see a vampire who isn’t sleek, silky, and sparkly. Benny’s steely and a bit rough around the edges. He may have a velvety southern drawl, and Ty Olsson’s definitely handsome man, but he has an unfeigned gruffness underneath the smooth demeanor. He’s not overly groomed like the poster boys of the Vampire Diaries. He’s the real thing. And Olsson’s performance, which lasts for a grand total of about four minutes, brings that point home despite its brevity.
But it’s the role Benny’s going to play that I find strangely reassuring. We know that Dean Winchester doesn’t trust monsters, but he trusts this one. We see their initial encounter, we see the camaraderie that results – and nothing in between. At the end of the episode, we see Dean sneaking away to talk to Benny, which smells a little too fishily of Sam sneaking away to talk to Ruby a few seasons back (and we all know how that ended). Which suggests that whatever “went down” in Purgatory and earned Benny a place among the ranks of Sam and Cas in Dean’s life was significant and profoundly transformative. It’s also probably the path to both character development and heartbreak, and for the time being, we don’t have a damn clue as to what it is.
In the meantime, though, we get to catch up with a couple familiar characters. The last season’s mission seemed to be that of systematically ridding the show of everybody, and thankfully the approach this time is different. Sam and Dean’s first mission after their reunion is to go looking for Kevin Tran, a minor (but memorable figure) from last season. Kevin Tran, Advanced Placement, seems to have picked up quite a bit of expertise on the world of the Winchesters, and he’s been doing a hell of a job fending for himself. He even manages to outsmart the King of Hell – twice. This, among other circumstances, thrusts him into the world of hunting and monsters, allowing his story to begin paralleling that of the Winchesters. It’s yet another instance of much-needed character development.
Crowley’s back too, and he wants Kevin to translate more of the Word of God – the one that tells you how to close the gates of Hell. Forever. As Kevin says, “that could be important,” and it hints at the storyline of the season (as if we didn’t already know that from obsessively watching previews).
All of which amounts to very little action, but a great amount of potential. Nothing much happens in this episode beyond the expected, and yet it sets the stage for a season of good plots and character development and, quite probably, a lot of emotional pain.