'Supernatural' Farewell: Why I Gave Up Weekly Winchester Reviews
Hello "Supernatural" fans! Long time no see.
There's obviously been some recent news about Castiel's upcoming return (and you can read Misha Collins' reaction to that here), but today's piece was in the works before that development came to light. I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the Dec. 2 episode of the CW show, which was a terrific showcase for Jim Beaver, among other things. I bet I'm not alone in thinking it was one of the best Bobby-oriented episodes the show has ever done or in thinking it's among the best 'Supernatural' outings of 2011.
It feels good to be going out on a high. Me, that is. Not the show. This will be my last weekly review of 'Supernatural.' But this is not a farewell to the fandom -- merely an au revoir.
Where's all this coming from? Well, let's do a quick "Previously on Mo's 'Supernatural' Reviews."
The last episode I reviewed was 'The Mentalists,' and, as has been the case with several of my posts on the show this fall, all hell broke loose in the comments section. I don't think I was accused of causing global warming and/or kidnapping the Lindbergh baby, but things got pretty heated in there. The 'Mentalists' post is currently at 348 comments and counting.
Normally, I love to see hundreds of comments on a post. That's often the kind of thing makes my day, if not my week. But things are not currently all that normal (or what passes for normal) in the realm of "Supernatural."
I've said several times, this fall especially, that I think the show is off track in many key respects (the condensed version of my current overall critique is here). It's not that it's incapable of producing a good episode (and I'd call 'Death's Door' a great episode), it's that the show used to be a model of consistency. It never really strayed outside of certain quality parameters. It might occasionally have a clunker or a stratospherically excellent episode, but most episodes were at the very least competent, if not above average. Most episodes were just plain good.
That's often not been the case, for the last few months especially. Since about the middle of Season 6, the show has been wildly inconsistent and has lacked focus, rigor, ambition and a clear sense of where the characters are going and why. Part of the reason I'm giving up weekly reviews is that I want to give that dead horse I've been beating a break. I've told you what I've thought in my Season 7 pieces (the highlights are here, here and here), and if you think these pieces have often been repetitive to read, they're no less repetitive to write.
So that's Reason No. 1 I'm putting an end to the weekly reviews: I don't want to bore you or me with the same old, same old. As I said, the show still can come up with the goods -- I liked 'How to Win Friends and Influence Monsters' and loved 'Death's Door' -- but there have been more bad episodes than good this fall, and the bad ones have, frankly, made me angry and frustrated as a fan of the show. It's hard not to get riled up when you think something isn't living up to its potential, when individual episodes are often weak and derivative and when the season as a whole has lacked a consistent drive.
I won't offer many thoughts on 'Season 7: Time for a Wedding,' given that Stacey Kade did a brilliant job of taking apart everything that was wrong with that episode here. Suffice to say, I thought it made a (bad) mockery of the show's penchant for meta episodes, and a show that's often on the ropes creatively should not be in the business of ridiculing its remaining fans in heavy-handed and vaguely unpleasant ways.
That may sound a little harsh, but, the thing is, I react emotionally to what I see on the screen, and so do you. That's fair, that's to be expected -- a big part of the reason we're fans is that the show gets us emotionally invested in what's going on. What wasn't particularly pleasant about the comments on 'The Mentalists' review was the way some people assumed they had figured out my hidden agenda. A certain vocal subgroup decided that I was anti-Dean, because that I wrote that the Dean in that episode was a dick.
Here's what I meant by that, which I thought was obvious but perhaps not: When I care about a character a lot, it bothers me when that character is written poorly. And as I said in that review, in my opinion, Dean was being written badly -- he was dickish in ways that didn't ring true for me at all.
The particular brand of dickishness on display was exactly the problem. This did not seem like the guy who had been through all the experiences we've witnessed in the past seven seasons. This was a crude, rudimentary version of that guy, with all the hard-won maturity hacked off. It bothered me that the character was written with such a lack of finesse much of the time, just as it bothers me when Sam is written with a lack of finesse and complexity. When characters' potential and experiences are simply tossed aside or dumbed down by the show's writers, it's annoying. That's what I was saying.
I know that by taking on this subject again, I run the risk of making the comment area fill up again with arguments about various characters, but that's not my intent. Honestly, for me, that kind of discussion is kind of beside the point (and let me stipulate here that I care a great deal about both characters, and given what heights Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles can scale as actors, I always want them to get material worthy of their range and talents and I get quite cranky when that doesn't happen).
Here's my point, and this is another one of the reasons I don't want to do the weekly reviews these days: The lack of consistency in the writing is leading to more arguments among fans. We are the hardcore folks, the people who are still watching well into the show's seventh season, and many of us are so deeply committed to the positions we've taken on the show and the characters that arguments can get hostile more quickly.
Sure, individuals who can't converse about these matters kindly and politely are partly to blame (of course, the vast majority of you are civil, and I thank you for that). But in my mind, the powers that be behind 'Supernatural' are partly responsible for the current state of affairs. Even if an episode here or there is solid, overall, the writers are doing such an inconsistent job of delivering strong emotional, thematic and storytelling arcs that we as fans often have to fill in the blanks and supply our own interpretations of what's happening. We have to supply the complexity and connective tissue that the show is too often failing to give us.
Because the Winchesters' stories, as individuals and as brothers, have been all over the map, every single fan comes up with "their" backstory and interpretation, and each can come up with a rationale for his or her likes and dislikes. Because the narrative is so diffuse and so often consists of sloppy cover versions of songs we already know, people can and do impose a any number of interpretation on characters and story. It can all be a recipe for chaos.
The end result is that, as I noted, people often appear to be even more attached to their interpretations of events, and when people disagree, the conversation can get unpleasant, even when all parties are well-intentioned. However, when some parties assume bad faith on my part or on the part of other fans, when people assume I have an agenda beyond interpreting this show the same way that I'd interpret "Mad Men" or "Game of Thrones," that's when things begin to spin out of control. When that happens, it can just be exhausting to contend with.
There are always going to be a range of interpretations, ideas and theories in any fandom. That's all to the good, in general. But, specifically speaking of "Supernatural," what we've got right now is a road with some broken traffic signals, too few stop signs, and guide posts in 10 different languages. We're all traveling to an uncertain destination, with no clear sense of whether the road beneath our feet is the right one. We're often arguing the whole way about which route is best, instead of looking out the window and enjoying the view, and that's partly because the navigation from on high is sometimes out of whack.
So all of that is not a ton of fun, for me as a fan or as a comment-wrangler. One of the things I was proudest of, as a fan and a critic, was that the comment areas of my 'Supernatural' posts were usually extremely polite, even when people disagreed with each other. And, like I said, most of you are still thoughtful, pleasant and civil, and I'm so grateful for that. But there's an element of fans who interpret criticism of bad or inconsistent writing as unwarranted criticism of individual characters or the show itself, and that's a wrestling match I don't have the mental energy for just now.
There are other concerns, I hasten to add. I have growing personal commitments that make it increasingly difficult to give half a weekend day (or more) to the writing and comment moderation of a "Supernatural" review. That's a significant part of this.
But I'm not going to stop watching or writing about "Supernatural," I promise. I'm still going to watch the show and weigh in when I have something to say about it. The fact is, I still have a great deal of affection for the show, and I think taking a break from weekly reviews will allow me to have a different perspective on it. I don't want to keep trotting out the same criticisms, given how much I have enjoyed "Supernatural" over the years. In a weird way, I'm giving up the weekly reviews out of affection -- for the show, for the fans, for myself.
Now, if you're still with me (and thank you, if you are), here are a few thoughts on "Death's Door."
The episode, to me, showcased what 'Supernatural' does best. It effectively used an ambitious structure, clever dialogue and terrific character development to tell an emotionally infused story that kept me guessing even as it drew me deeper into the suspenseful tale it was telling. It was a pleasure to watch it twice.
I could say that giving us two Bobby cliffhangers in a row (in both "How to Influence" and "Death's Door") was pushing it a bit, but I can't even convincingly list that as a real quibble. "Death's Door" was just a great hour of television that got a pass on that front because it earned one.
We already knew that Jim Beaver was a terrific actor, but this episode put his character through the wringer and then some, and Beaver just knocked every scene out of the park. So many of his best moments were silent: The tortured look he had as his wife sobbed, the ferocious look he had as his father beat his mother, the love that shone on his face when he watched Sam and Dean argue about Chuck Norris vs. Jet Li, the loyalty and devotion he wore proudly when he called Sam and Dean his adopted sons. I don't only have negative things to say about 'Supernatural,' honestly, and I'm glad I'm able to say this: The show should be commended for giving this hard-working actor such a top-notch and varied showcase for his skills. Kudos all 'round.
It was a great hour for Steven Williams also; the banter between Bobby and Rufus was one of the best things about the episode. This is the reason I thought it was a bad idea to kill off Rufus in the first place; he's not only a great character and a wonderful foil for Bobby, it's often illustrative to see how a supporting character views the pain of a main character. We didn't just see Bobby face down his deepest pain; we saw Rufus watch him do that, and the experiences and the emotions had more resonance because they were shared.
Another excellent thing about the episode is that gave us new perspective on the Winchesters. They were at Bobby's bedside, drinking stale coffee, but it wasn't really about them, and that was refreshing, in a way. Sometimes, the indirect path is more effective. I know the show has tried hard to convince me that Dean carries a black, weighty sadness in his soul, but at times, 'Supernatural' has been too crude and blunt in how it has portrayed that weight. When Dean muttered, "We've been through enough," that brief moment was worth its weight in emotional gold. Sometimes, more is less.
What worked most about the episode was its message, which evoked the show's themes beautifully. It made the case that our pain is not worthless and is actually quite valuable at times. Pain and loss can define us and motivate us, and not always in bad ways. Sometimes pain and anger are what get our heads back in the game, and the hour, especially the scenes with Bobby's wife, quietly demonstrated that we can't feel awful pain unless we've felt real love.
I've been complaining since the last season that the show was too bleak, so it was good to see an episode that explored wounds -- psychological and physical -- and showed characters not hiding from them, but accepting them and in some cases, beginning to treat them like badges of honor. There was so much suffering on display, but it was suffering that meant something; it brought Bobby back to life. What an intrinsically "Supernatural" story: Death or the well-played Reaper weren't the enemy -- the enemy was the fear of what's inside your own soul and memory. And to vanquish that fear -- or at least come to terms with it -- is a beautiful thing.
Having said all that, it seems telling to me somehow that the two 2011 'Supernatural' episodes I found most effective and emotionally moving ("The Man Who Would Be King" and "Death's Door") were not primarily about Sam and Dean. I don't want to think that the show has run out of new ways to tell profound and moving stories about their dilemmas, but I do wonder at times if the show has gone to those wells too often. I did, during "Death's Door," think: "I want Sam and Dean episodes that move me this way."
Maybe we'll get those. I'll be watching, along with the rest of you. And I'll weigh in about what's happening on the show when it feels right.
My final thought is this: The community of commenters that has existed here has meant a great deal to me. Even if I didn't respond to your comment, know that I read every one, and I'm grateful for every second you spent here.
I'll be back one of these days to talk all things Winchester (and Bobby and Castiel). Follow me on Twitter if you want to know when that happens.
Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.