Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 8, Episode 2 of The CW's "Supernatural," entitled "What's Up, Tiger Mommy?"
Apologies for being a day late with this review, I was traveling on Wednesday night, but I think I benefited from a little extra time to ruminate on the episode. I'm of two minds about this week's "Supernatural," which did some things spectacularly, and dropped the ball on others. I'm still trying to decide whether the good outweighed the bad, because the episode didn't leave a bad taste in my mouth, but also didn't seem as cohesive as last week's premiere.
I find that I often have trouble with scripts written by Andrew Dabb and Daniel Loflin (although they did pen one of my favorite episodes, "Frontierland") since the pair have a habit of telling instead of showing, generally lacking the nuance of writers such as Jeremy Carver and Ben Edlund, who seem to trust their audience to keep up with them without the need to telegraph things so dramatically.
Nuance and tone are the key words I usually come back to in these cases, since things often seem heavy-handed or a little too by the numbers in Dabb and Loflin scripts -- though the pair do far better with humorous episodes than dramatic ones. The main problem I had with "Tiger Mommy" was that it didn't seem sure which of the two it wanted to be -- the scenes in Purgatory were dark and thrumming with tension, while the scenes in the present day were jaunty and laden with quick one-liners and knowing winks.
What differentiates the Carvers and Edlunds of the world from other writers is the ability to interweave these two moods without the transitions seeming jarring; Crowley can go from calling Sam a moose one moment to snapping an innocent girl's neck the next, and both seem equally believable within the narrative, a one-two punch of pathos and bathos that only serves to heighten the emotional impact. To be fair to the writers, tone is also reliant on a director's touch, and that touch seemed clumsy in "Tiger Mommy."
Dean's memories of interrogating a monster in Purgatory intercut with his interrogation of locker thief Clem were effective and unnerving, but that ominous mood was immediately undermined when we switched from the cold, hollow sounds of Purgatory to that upbeat, twangy soundtrack often used to transition between scenes or to denote a humorous moment (whether it's tonally appropriate or not). It's something I never noticed in the earliest seasons of the show, but a distracting habit that seems to have formed over the last two or three years, if not longer.
Still, while I found the episode somewhat bipolar in tone, there were plenty of things to appreciate, and I would hate to give the impression that I thought the episode was awful when it was a generally solid hour. It's easy to nitpick at particular logic jumps or narrative shortcuts, but the episode served to keep the momentum going from the premiere and launch a new plot thread, which left the writers in the unenviable position of needing to get us from point A to B without much time left to explore character dynamics.
For example, we still don't have much of an idea where Sam's head is at right now; he left his girlfriend and dog in the premiere, but we still don't know if he's regretting that decision or just glad to be back in Dean's presence, and aside from offering a smirk, a long-suffering look or a word of wisdom, his motivations are still unclear. Objectively, I know it's because it's hard to tell a fully-developed story in 42 minutes and serve both plot and characters equally, and plot clearly took precedence this week, but it would be nice to have some context for what both brothers are feeling, since they're far more interesting than Kevin and his mom.
We got a little more insight into Dean's mindset this week, although he's clearly still keeping plenty of secrets from the audience as well as Sam. Though Sam's (and arguably the show's) main story arc has focused on his struggle against his darker impulses, from his psychic abilities to the demon blood storyline and his destiny as Lucifer's vessel, I've always been fascinated by Dean's slower and more subtle evolution from a person of distinct, black and white morality to a man who now seems to live solely in shades of gray.
While Sam tends to externalize his worries, making him more eager to talk out his problems, Dean is the opposite, and internalizes his fears and insecurities, leading to bursts of explosive violence when the pressure becomes too much. After their father died, we saw this rage manifest itself in his bloody beheading of vampires, throwing punches at Sam or waling on the trunk of the Impala, but after Hell (and, not coincidentally, his time spent studying the art of torture with Alistair), Dean had seemingly further repressed those urges out of shame, until his time in Purgatory unleashed them again in full force to help him stay alive. Post-Purgatory, it seems that Dean no longer has the same handle on his anger as he used to, leading to that intense interrogation scene where Dean toed the line between justifiable force and flat-out murder.
It was nice to see that Sam didn't immediately rush to pull Dean off, trusting him to rein himself in, but after the close call with Crowley/Mrs. Tran later in the episode, it wouldn't surprise me if we saw a situation where Sam needed to intervene in the not too distant future. Crowley wasn't exactly lying when he noted that "the Winchesters have a habit of using people up and watching them die bloody," even when their intentions are honorable.
I'm still trying to decide whether the boys' cavalier attitudes towards killing humans who are possessed is narrative laziness or a natural progression of their characters, but right now I'm leaning towards the former. While Dean is certainly entitled to be a "kill first, ask questions later" kind of guy after Purgatory, Sam has spent a year off, and shouldn't be quite so casual about murdering mailmen to dispatch demons. The boys leave quite a trail of bodies in their wake these days, and while I know it's often necessary to destroy the demons before they can run back to Crowley, I still wish we could see a little remorse or hesitation from the brothers -- it's somewhat hypocritical for the two of them (especially Dean this season) to make such a big deal about saving human lives when they usually murder three innocent, demon-possessed bystanders in the course of every episode. It's been a staple part of the show pretty much since the introduction of Ruby's knife, but I still find it problematic. Is "what's one more nightmare?" a good enough excuse?
We finally got our first glimpse of Castiel this season thanks to another atmospheric flashback, and after all of Dean's coldness towards the angel last year, it was great to see Dean greeting him so warmly (with a hug, no less!) to illustrate that in Dean's eyes, Cas has atoned for his past transgressions. Both Sam and Dean have made plenty of potentially apocalyptic mistakes and betrayed each other a number of times at this point, so I'm relieved that Dean's no longer hypocritically holding a grudge, and his loyalty was heartwarming (although probably signals his intention to be loyal to Benny too, until the vampire inevitably turns out to be a complete psychopath).
We now know that Castiel fled at the end of last season to keep Dean safe (aww), and that he's apparently still concerned enough about being hunted to want to avoid traveling with Dean to test out Purgatory's escape hatch. Benny's reluctance to allow Cas to tag along instantly made me suspicious -- either Benny knew Dean could only transport one hitchhiking creature out with him, or he figured Cas would rumble whatever evil scheme he's got going on and convince Dean to leave Benny behind. Either way, as charismatic as the vampire is, he seems like Ruby all over again to me. I'm both intrigued and a little afraid to see how Dean ended up leaving Castiel behind after all.
Although we briefly met Mrs. Tran in Season 7, I'm glad they decided to recast her with Lauren Tom (Julie from "Friends" -- consider my mind blown) who had enough sass and steel to keep things interesting. Anyone who can go toe to toe with Crowley is welcome to stick around, although once again, the comedic aspects of the auction (while admittedly hilarious) somewhat undermined the emotional impact of Mrs. Tran offering up her soul and Kevin appearing to be in very real danger from Crowley.
It also seemed lazy for the plot to necessitate Kevin and his mom getting anti-possession tattoos only for Mrs. Tran's tattoo to be burned off a few minutes later (although props for the adherence to continuity) but having Crowley hop into her was a nice touch, and an opportunity for us to finally see his red eyes -- and matching red smoke -- after years of speculation as to what color his demonic peepers might be.
I also hope that we'll see Samandiriel (the angel of fertility and imagination, apparently) again -- the actor, Tyler Johnston, also appeared way back in Season 1's "Bugs," but has grown up enough to convincingly play a heavenly helper with both compassion and a strange kind of agelessness. It was also fun to see Sam wielding Thor's hammer, since I feel like Jared Padalecki's name was bandied about in conjunction with that particular hero before Chris Hemsworth won the role. And thanks to the wisdom of Twitter, a few folks helped me to place pawn shop owner Lyle as Harris Allan (Hunter on "Queer as Folk"), who apparently hasn't aged a day.
I will say that when Dabb and Loflin go all-in on the humor, they're at their best; if the auction had been straight comedy, it would've been perfect. From Beau's promise that the wards on the building would prevent Sam and Dean from being supernaturally flung into walls (guess what happened to them as soon as the wards were broken?) to Crowley and Samandiriel's increasingly outlandish attempts to win the tablet, there was a lot to laugh at this week.
So Kevin and his catatonic mom are on the run, Sam's unreadable, Dean's gone native, Crowley is currently in possession of the tablet and Cas is AWOL -- the odds currently don't seem stacked in Sam and Dean's favor. Then again, we're only on episode 2. How are you feeling about the new season so far?
"Supernatural" airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on The CW.