Supernatural is my one exception to the "no awful television" rule, because it's in the unique position of being simultaneously terrible and brilliant. Its attitude to women (or anyone who isn't a straight white man) is atrocious, its episodic storylines are quite often shitty or ridiculous to the point of offensiveness, and it relies heavily on a very formulaic storyline cycle -- although as I'll explain later, its formulaic nature is actually one of its greatest strengths. But somehow, two years after abandoning it at the season 6 finale ("CASTIEL DID WHAT!?") I found myself crawling back to this godawful show, masochistically enthralled once again. 23 episodes in less than a month, you guys. Twenty-three episodes.
"So, after watching three seasons of Supernatural in three months, do you feel any different?" "Well, now I hate and distrust all women..."For the past few weeks I've been watching and live-tweeting season 7, mostly to responses like "Why are you doing this to yourself?" and "You sound like an alcoholic falling off the wagon." Well, at least I'm not alone in that regard. Over the years I've seen plenty of people do exactly the same thing: drop Supernatural, only to succumb to its dubious charms after months or years away. My condolences, friends. I've often noticed it being referred to as the unpleasant ex-boyfriend of fandom: you know it's terrible and will end up hurting you all over again, but you just can't help yourself. This is the kind of gallows humour that bubbles to the top of your brain after watching 23 consecutive episodes of Sam and Dean repeating the same conversation over and over again, defeating yet another an implausible villain with some kind of maguffin device, and violently murdering several evil sexy women. So, why the hell did I put myself through it all over again? Why do any of us do it?
— Hello, Tailor (@Hello_Tailor) January 19, 2014
- The main characters' father-figure dying, becoming a ghost, and then haunting a hip flask. (And eventually going on to possess the body of a motel maid.)
- The main antagonists being an evil corporate network of flesh-eating monsters who can only be killed using borax (!!!), and who plan to take over the USA by using modified high-fructose corn syrup to turn everyone into zombies.
- I REPEAT, HIGH-FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP ZOMBIES.
- One of the main characters dying, coming back to life as an amnesiac, getting married to the woman who fished him out of a river, then regaining his memories, moving into a mental institution, and finally deciding that he wants to dedicate his life to "watching the bees". This character is an angel. We don't hear anything about his wife after the first time she's mentioned on the show.
- An episode that involves not only evil clowns and a vampire octopus, but a unicorn that farts rainbows.
- A supervillain whose name is literally Dick, meaning that there are actual canonical lines like "The rise of Dick" and "Dick is coming."
Women and Supernatural
This may sound like an odd attitude to have, but as someone who is highly critical of sexism on TV, I find Supernatural strangely relaxing to watch. The reason why I write so much about the role of female characters in stuff like Doctor Who and Sherlock (and to a lesser extent, Teen Wolf) is because there are still so many people labouring under the baffling misapprehension that those shows are feminist masterpieces. Steven Moffat's followers are particularly depressing to me, because there seems to be a large number of self-proclaimed feminists who think that both Sherlock and recent seasons of Doctor Who are a high bar for female representation on TV. I've lost count of the number of well-meaning questions I've answered from people who still need a nudge to notice that beneath the shiny veneer of "strong female characters" in Sherlock, lies a roiling cesspool of misogyny.
Leviathans, AKA Why the hell would you even do that?
Thanks to my idiotic decision to avoid any and all spoilers for two solid years, I only knew three things about this season: Felicia Day showed up at some point, there was a new character named Kevin, and that this was the Bad Season. And oh boy, was that last judgement 100% accurate.
For the first six seasons, SPN stuck to loosely Biblical and occult themes, which worked out pretty well because it meant they could just recycle a ton of familiar horror/fantasy concepts. The introduction of angels was a gamble, but to my surprise it turned out to be a really interesting development. Leviathans, on the other hand? Not so much.
I do understand why season 7 was like this. The previous two seasons had been so high-stakes that the writers had to go in a different direction, leading to what basically amounted to a season-long version of Buffy's "Doublemeat Palace" episode. The villains were near-unkillable monsters (who inevitably became more and more killable as the season progressed) who planned to turn America into a giant Soylent Green factory. In some ways it's weirdly impressive that the writers decided to stretch this ridiculous plotline out to an entire season, even given the handful of familiar touches like substituting borax for holy water, or having the end-of-season maguffin be a magical ~bone. (A bone that they use to stab Dick, of course. Never let it be said that Supernatural avoids the chance to squeeze in another penis joke.)
The Leviathan-centric parody of corporate America would have worked better if the writers had spent time on it, I think. As it was, we mostly just saw distant appearances from Dick (who was, admittedly, excellent) and a few henchmen. With the ability to make copies of any person's body and memories, the Leviathans should've been the most threatening enemy in the show's history, especially since they had so much mainstream "human" power throughout America. And yet by the final episode, their destruction almost seemed like an afterthought when compared to more interesting details like the rise of Crowley, or Castiel's return to the fold. In that regard the entire season felt very similar to a comedy filler episode, with Sam and Dean easily disposing of an unfeasibly powerful enemy just because they had to move on to next week's storyline.
The road so far.
The CW recently announced that they're going to make a Supernatural spinoff series, which isn't a huge surprise considering the show's longevity. It's going to be set in Chicago, an interesting choice because it instantly removes one of the most important elements of the original show: road trips.
The basic concept of Supernatural ("saving people, hunting things") is interesting enough, but it's not exactly unique. There are multiple modern-day fantasy/horror TV shows running at any given time, and SPN's strength isn't its worldbuilding -- it's Sam and Dean's lifestyle. Relying on the formula of Winchester brothers + motels + Impala road trips + weekly infusions of new monsters to kill, the show develops at such a glacially slow pace that you barely even notice until you're a couple of seasons in, at which point you are terminally hooked. It's pretty unusual for a show to stick to a core cast of just two people, meaning that Sam & Dean's characterisation gets the kind of in-depth treatment that's usually reserved for, well, better television. Obviously when you're watching something like The Good Wife, every character is beautifully complex, but SPN is a show that devoted an entire season to a supervillain who turns people into zombies with genetically engineered fast food. The believability of Sam and Dean's character progression is what keeps everything grounded, in among all those rainbow-farting unicorns and high-fructose corn syrup conspiracies.
Manly antiheroes often tend to be heavy drinkers, and it was always kind of hilarious that Dean, who lives on a diet of fast food and liquor, could be played by the inhumanly beautiful Jensen Ackles. This season, they finally began to point out that Dean's constant drinking was less about him being a lonesome cowboy badass, and more about him being an honest-to-god drunk. I loved that he was basically just like, "Why are we even bothering to save the world again? WE DO THIS EVERY FUCKING YEAR." Which he quickly followed up by saying that maybe the world wants to end -- a thinly disguised hint that Dean no longer had much to live for himself. Dean's life is hell, maybe even moreso than Sam's because unlike Sam, he can't even choose not to be a hunter. At least Sam got a few years of practise at being a normal person.
Taken at face value, Dean is a bloodthirsty, immature alcoholic who lives in his car and is unconsciously obsessed with living up to some imaginary ideal of American masculinity. Meanwhile Sam, the "sensitive one", has a college education (kind of), treats women with a modicum of respect, and is slightly more likely to think before he shoots someone in the head. But within two or three seasons, Dean was by far my favourite. First of all, the show purposefully engineers Sam into situations where he proves himself to have an inner core of total asshole, after which he always springs back to acting like the ~superior brother. Basically, Dean will do terrible things in the name of ~Good, while Sam, convinced that he is doing the right thing, will make a terrible decision that fucks everything up for everyone.
The brothers' personalities are perfectly balanced in that the things that seem superficially true of Dean are actually Sam's underlying personality traits, and vice versa. For example, Dean is impulsive and thoughtles while Sam is more inclined to instigate an actual discussion about ethics, but Dean still has far stronger instincts on a moral and emotional level. And despite his general mistrust and lack of respect for 90% of the population, Dean gets attached to people (Castiel; Bobby; Ellen & Jo) to far a more intense degree. Dean may have grown up alone on the road, but I think Sam is secretly better at living independently.
Dean's feelings towards Castiel will probably get a post all to themselves (SPOILER ALERT: Supernatural turns me into an obnoxious shipper nightmare, because Destiel is written like a canon pairing but almost certainly never will be, UGH) but I had a love/hate with this season because a) NO CASTIEL, but b) Dean's gut-churningly dire emotional state was partly caused by Castiel's betrayal and subsequent death. The former, obviously, was trash garbage (although I'll excuse it, because Misha Collins was busy with his new baby). But the latter was very satisfying to me, because I'd begun to watch Dean's booze intake like a hawk, and he became noticeably less of a drunk once Castiel came back from the dead.
Like so many seasons before, this one ended on an epic cliffhanger, with Dean and Cas in Purgatory, Kevin kidnapped by demons, and Sam standing around bemusedly in a high-fructose corn syrup laboratory full exploded of monster guts. No wonder I couldn't help but start watching season 8 immediately.
To be continued...
(Season 8 is currently being watched & live-tweeted whenever I can muster the spiritual energy for another dose of nightmare garbage, @hello_tailor.)