Okay, so everyone alive in the world today knows that Supernatural is my A-1 tippy-top most best television love, right? I laugh, I cry, I feel their Winchestery pain. I have thoughts and manifestos and stories about the times in Vancouver when I crept my way onto the set by being foreign and chatty and did things like watch Castiel eat a sandwich and have a snowball fight with the crew and let Sam and Dean mock my accent. That’s just how I roll. My friends and I have a thing we like to call Supernatural Friday, where we all gather to drink wine and watch the episode on the big screen, and I knife anyone who dares to speak or breathe during it.
This is the way of things.
So, why, then, world of today, is my primary feeling about this season boredom? There’s a side of anger, sure, but it’s sort of blunted by the crushing weight of meh, whatever.
WHAT, you gasp, BUT LAST WEEK WAS AWESOME. AND SAUCE. AND AWESOMESAUCE, ALL MIXED UP.
Hey, so remember that cool dude with the pestilence and the disease? You might have forgotten because he got dispatched in about half a scene. Also, HOW COOL WAS DEATH? For one scene. And wait, did they just BLOW UP the Croatoan virus, that little sneaky zombification tool of awesome that has been floating around since SEASON 2? And, seriously folks, did they just do it OFF-SCREEN? And what’s up with Castiel? WHO KNOWS, because he only got his allocated 15 seconds of screen-time to tell us! And wait, did someone say Adam is Michael’s vessel now? I lost that, in the SIXTY BAJILLION THINGS GOING ON.
All of which were GREAT, don’t get me wrong! Death was SO FREAKING COOL, IT HURT IN MY CHEST.
But I just can’t seem to work past the fact that Krip & Co. wasted the ENTIRE REST OF THIS SEASON ON UTTER BULLSHIT. I’m just going to say it. Biggest premise ever. The WORLD ENDED. And I know they have a restrictive budget, but I wasn’t aware that it was so bad that it prohibited them from writing Sam and Dean a new conversation, because we’ve been listening to the one about how they’re SAD and TIRED and DON’T TRUST EACH OTHER for six months now.
Guys, I like it when they cry, that’s not in question. Their pain gives me joy. But dudes, it’s time to FIND A NEW TUNE OR SHUT THE FUCK UP.
This season doesn’t feel right to anyone I know, even if they can’t put their finger on why. So let’s break it down:
THE COMPONENTS OF STORY, AS DEMONSTRATED BY HOT BOYS WITH GUNS
(Subtitle: How Serving the Fans Hasn’t Served the Show.)
Storytelling basics #1: So, conflict drives plot.
Supernatural fans think they want Sam and Dean to be happy and hug and love each other, but they don’t. No really, they don’t. All drama is driven by conflict. Without it, Sam and Dean are as boring to watch as your friends who are in love and always agree and hold hands and shit. I’m happy for those dudes, but nobody wants to spend 40 minutes watching them, either. Their story isn’t a story, because you can’t build to a resolution if there’s nothing to resolve.
Sam and Dean making up for being mean to each other last season just doesn’t have 22 episodes of mileage in it — at least not the circular, non-confrontational way the staff have been writing it. They both agree they were mean and awful and they don’t know how to trust each other, but that conversation hasn’t gone anywhere because it’s not building to anything. They made up three episodes in, and they’ve been re-hashing it ever since. Their basic positions haven’t really moved all season.
#2: And character drives conflict. AKA: If you’re not invested in the people, the story doesn’t mean shit.
This season, Supernatural has methodically killed off every recurring player on the show except for the pieces they need in place for the finale. No really, EVERYONE. Bonus points for shock value, and it does ram home the idea that no one is safe: this world is big and bad, and anyone could be next.
But that’s the problem: anyone COULD be next, so there’s no one to get attached to. Plot might be driven by conflict, but that conflict has to be driven by character, and Supernatural isn’t serving theirs.
The noisy portion of the internet has told the creative team over and over again that they want more Sam and Dean. Sam and Dean have to be together. Sam and Dean shouldn’t have girlfriends, or friends, or partners, or anyone else that might let them rely on someone other than Sam or Dean. But Sam and Dean aren’t going anywhere fast, because aside from the off-screen apocalypse that will be dealt with by other people anyway (more on that later!), they’re stuck re-hashing the same conversation every episode because they’re not allowed to explore the issues that underpin it, and they don’t have anyone else to talk to.
And when they do, they die.
#3: Story is not only driven by character, it has to serve them to have any resonance.
Two characters escape this grisly fate: the sexually unthreatening father figure, and the friendly angel with the homoerotic overtones. But just to make sure that the fans don’t worry that these dudes will put a wedge in Sam and Dean’s undying love, they don’t appear very often. They get a scene or two, and then the writing staff carefully don’t mention them for the next couple of episodes so everyone is good and certain that Sam and Dean don’t love them as much as they love each other.
This serves two purposes:
- Their stories never get any traction, so it always feels vaguely like everyone forgot about them (hey, remember three weeks ago when they thought Castiel had DIED, but no one mentioned it until he turned up again last episode?), and
- Because they’ve both been vastly more interesting than Sam and Dean this season, their constant disappearances leave a big black hole of drama as they take everything worth watching with them.
Also, moving them around the board like chess pieces means they aren’t allowed to feel like PEOPLE. (See above, re: character should drive the story, not be driven by it.) (See also, further above: Sam and Dean and their fan-serving non-conflict.)
#3: Active protagonists: your main characters have to be the ones moving the plot. If they’re not, they’re not the main characters.
A huge issue for this season is the fact that Sam and Dean are essentially sidelined in any of the real action. The big showdown will happen with other characters wearing their meat, and too many episodes have climaxed (I can write that without sniggering, I can write that without sniggering…) with Sam and Dean standing on the sidelines as someone else swoops in to save the day.
It feels unsatisfying because it is. The bulk of the action is happening around them rather than to them. Aside from being the vessels for the final fight, Sam and Dean lack either a stake in the apocalypse, or the means to fight it. Which brings me to…
#4: Show don’t tell. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before!
Sam and Dean’s big conundrum this year is that they have to say yes to Lucifer and Michael in order for Lucifer and Michael to possess them, so they can have a big rumble and one of them will defeat the other and blah blah, lots of people will die. You’ve heard it.
And heard it.
And heard it.
But we haven’t seen it.
Part of the problem is obviously budget: the show can’t afford to show us all the chaos and devastation Lucifer is causing. Hell, apparently they can’t even afford Lucifer, since Mark Pellegrino never shows up (more on that later!). So various characters have to tell us: Chicago is about to be destroyed! Zombies afoot! People are bleeding in the streets! Doom, DOOOM!
Sounds bad, you think. Shouldn’t Sam and Dean just let these dudes hop on board to end all this awful-sounding trouble? (Or at least go do something about the bleeding and the doom, rather than faffing around at fan conventions?)
To which, Sam and Dean say no. A LOT. But they don’t really say WHY.
Sure, it’s been mentioned that lots of people will die, but lots of people are ALREADY dying. We know because someone tells us so at least once an episode. How do we know that the dying then is worse than the dying now, besides the fact that even Sam and Dean know that a decision on that has to wait for sweeps?
Maybe I’m just missing something, but I need to feel the stakes of either answer. The weight of that decision needs to drive the season, and I don’t feel like it has in any visceral way. But it probably can’t: there’s the rub with hinging the central conflict on a yes/no call. The results to that decision are hypothetical and in the future, and when you can’t afford to show the fallout in the present, you’re left with a consequence vaccuum. The moral grey area is DELICIOUS, and like 90% of why I watch the show in the first place (since you asked!: 6% Jensen Ackles’ freckles, 3% men crying, 1% JPad’s expression when he’s thinking really hard), but they haven’t really invested in it beyond some putzing around by Zachariah, and since there’s only two options and they’re both bad, there’s not enough mileage in them to sustain extended discussion on their own.
#5: An antagonist, by definition, needs to antagonise.
Lucifer, when he shows up — which is not often — generally seems like a pretty nice dude. He just wants to have a quiet word with Sam, shoot the shit for a bit, and then disappear, never to be mentioned again. There’s no sense of tension or menace around him because he can’t take Sam over until Sam says yes, and Sam can’t say yes because, well, why would he? Nobody wants Lucifer using them as a muppet, but it’s not really an issue since Lucifer is both super duper polite about it, and can’t find Sam anyway. Problem solved! Cheeseburgers all around!
I had thought maybe Zach would end up the main antagonist for the season, since he was actually, y’know, ANTAGONISTIC — but then they killed him. Like they killed Anna and Jo and Ellen and everyone else who was either moderately interesting and/or possessed a vagina. (Speaking of, WHERE DID MEG GO? LAST FEMALE CHARACTER, PLEASE BREAK UP THIS SAUSAGE-FEST.)
#6: Rats don’t push the food button if they don’t get food, aka don’t save all the good stuff for the end.
There’s an art to teasing out information across a story. I know this because I suck at it. I tend to want to wait and dump all the cool stuff on the audience at the end, where it has maximum thrills and chills. It’s been pointed out to me that this is generally a stupid idea, mostly by people who gave up before they got there.
You have to feed your story like a goldfish. No, wait, that’s a shit analogy. Like a puppy. You have to reward for good behaviour as it happens, or you’ll never make it to the dog show. That’s still shit. WHATEVER. If you can’t drop some bombs through the boring middle, people won’t hang around for the mind-blowing end. Loyalty deserves to be rewarded, and an audience’s patience only extends so far. MY patience only extends so far.
Supernatural has spent so much time hammering home the point that EVERYTHING IS HOPELESS AND AWFUL AND EVERYONE IS GOING TO DIE AND SAM AND DEAN CAN’T DO ANYTHING AND IT’S ALL A WASTE OF TIIIIIME AND…
…and you lost me. I get it, it’s awful and pointless and they can’t win. You’ve succeeded, and I will now turn off my TV, resign myself to their fate, and go do something else.
But then they did come up with a plan! Like, an episode ago. And it left them with three episodes to save the WHOLE WORLD, since they didn’t bother to take care of ANY OF IT in the preceding 19 episodes. And we’re back to now, where everything’s going gangbusters and it’s all super duper, and my primary feeling about it is REALLY, I HAD TO SIT THROUGH ALL THAT POINTLESS SHIT WHEN YOU HAD THIS UP YOUR SLEEVES?
If they’d thrown me a frickin’ bone at any point in the last six months, I’d be less inclined to be peeved about them pissing away awesome storylines in a single act now. But instead, I sat through that god-awful thing about the teenage man-witch, and Pestilence got taken down before we’d made the popcorn.
In the interest of fairness, there were a couple of great episodes, too. The End would be in my top ten of all time (and look! It showed rather than told!) and My Bloody Valentine was just DELIGHTFUL, but overall, no matter what happens this week, I don’t think this season can salvage itself in a single episode.
To quote a source:
Technically, they’ve been building up to this for FIVE SEASONS. And now they are all “You’ve invested a bazillion hours in this, and we are going to make the climax all happen in 40 minutes”. I TELL YOU WHAT, if a man tried that with sex he’d never get any again.
Preach it, Source.
Entering a story is a contract: you’re agreeing to commit to the life of the project for return on investment at the end. The journey to get there can be as amazing as you like, but if the climax doesn’t have emotional growth and satisfying story resolution, the whole thing feels hollow. Which, incidentally, was the main problem with Sparks. BOOM.