Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 7, Episode 23 of The CW's "Supernatural," entitled "Survival of the Fittest."
Reviewing a season finale is very different from reviewing a singular episode, and "Supernatural" finales are more challenging than most. The end of a season has to tie up loose story threads from the episodes preceding it, while still leaving enough dangling to create a compelling jumping off point for next year. Thankfully, despite a few (okay, more than a few) lackluster episodes this season, I think that the finale managed to course-correct in a way that makes me truly optimistic for Season 8. The last couple of episodes didn't build up much momentum going into the closer, in comparison with the stellar runs at the end of Seasons 1, 2, 4 and 5, but a finale still needs to stand on its own merits, and against the odds, I felt like "Survival of the Fittest" did so.
I think that my main criticism with Season 7 as a whole -- and, in hindsight, with Season 6 too -- was an overall lack of focus. The ideas behind the Leviathans and Eve were good in theory, but in practice, there seemed to be too many standalone episodes to create a truly cohesive through-line from premiere to finale. When a season works as a whole, there need to be multiple unmissable episodes which deepen the mythology and drive the story forward, and looking back at Season 7, I feel like we could've watched the first two episodes of the season, "How To Win Friends and Influence Monsters," "Reading is Fundamental" and "Survival of the Fittest," ignored the rest, and still gotten the overall gist of the story.
I'm not sure if that was because of internal concerns that the Leviathans weren't interesting enough to be the focal point of more episodes, or because the monster of the week stories just didn't feel fresh or exciting enough (though I did enjoy "The Mentalists" and "Time After Time") -- but aside from Robbie Thompson, Sera Gamble and Ben Edlund, a number of writers seemed to struggle with pacing issues in their stories this year, with episodes either dragging in the middle or ending abruptly.
Although this sounds like a criticism of Gamble, I don't really mean it as one; I think that any showrunner (perhaps even Eric Kripke) would've struggled to conceptualize a new arc for Season 6 after the original five-year story came to a close, especially since no-one knew at that point whether the show would be back for a seventh year. For a series as heavily serialized as "Supernatural," conceiving two self-contained story arcs for the past two years must have been a herculean feat, so in many ways, I don't blame the writers for having difficulties in making Seasons 6 and 7 coherent.
The transition between Season 7 and Season 8 could prove equally challenging, since the series is once again changing showrunners, with Sera Gamble (who has written for the show since its first year) handing the reins to Jeremy Carver, who was with "Supernatural" from Seasons 3-5 before departing to launch the U.S. version of "Being Human" with his wife, Anna Fricke. I mourned the loss of Carver almost as much as I mourned the loss of Eric Kripke at the time, because I don't believe there is a single writer who grasped Sam and Dean's voices with as much style and confidence as he did, short of Kripke himself (alright, and Ben Edlund).
And while Kripke knew Sam and Dean, Carver knew story -- so many of his episodes remain my all-time favorites: "A Very Supernatural Christmas," "Mystery Spot," "In The Beginning," "Free To Be You And Me" and "The Point of No Return," to name a few. They weren't just well-written in terms of character, they were well-structured, too. Having a clearly defined beginning, middle and an end, and a coherent sense of pacing, is something that "Supernatural" has struggled with more noticeably in the past two seasons than it did in its first five years. I don't know whether that sense of cohesion was due to Kripke's influence or the product of a more experienced writing staff, but I'm hoping that Season 8 can recapture the lightning in a bottle that I haven't truly felt from "Supernatural" since Season 4.
So, enough waffling about the backstory; let's discuss "Survival of the Fittest." I'll admit, I never really connected to the Leviathans as adversaries after they left Castiel; I grew to appreciate Dick's smarmy corporate exterior, but I never felt that sense of dread or intimidation that I got from Azazel, Lilith or Lucifer. I suppose it's because those villains felt so otherworldly, so unconcerned with the trivialities of humanity, whereas Dick, by design, was a mirror of mankind's corporate greed and the soulless march of capitalism. We instinctively fear the unknown, the unfamiliar, but Dick and his cronies were all too familiar to us, because those one-percenter values (or lack thereof) are currently being parroted back at us from the campaign trail on a weekly basis. A few of us might want to punch certain political figures in the face, and some of their opinions may instill a sense of dread in us, but it's not really apocalyptic dread, is it?
It also doesn't help that Dick was focused on humanity as a whole, while the Winchesters' previous adversaries were focused on them (as any good TV villain should be). We're not watching the "random dude in Iowa eating a turducken sandwich" show, we're watching the Sam and Dean show, so the Leviathans viewing the Winchesters as an obstacle rather than the goal undeniably lowered the stakes for me. Sure, the Leviathans wanted to squash the boys like bugs, but how is that different from any other Monster Of The Week they've had to face? I get that the writers wanted to give the boys another global challenge, to somehow up the ante from Lucifer however they could, but there's no denying that Azazel, Lilith and Lucifer worked in large part because they were focused on the boys (or, really, on Sam) and personal stakes are so much more compelling than universal ones. That's another area where Eve and her "turn humans into monsters" plan fell down, although Season 6's issues were more widespread than simply having a disappointing villain.
Because of that, as fond as I'd grown of Dick's snarkiness (and lord knows I would've been content to watch an hour of Dick and Crowley bantering) I was glad that Dean managed to take Dick down in the finale. They didn't outright destroy all of the Leviathans, so they can still present a challenge next season, but I felt that their endgame had run its course. The beauty of this finale -- especially this ending -- is that it's truly impossible to predict where the show might go from here, so we can spend the summer in rapturous speculation.
The Leviathans didn't work for me, but seeing them gone did, and so did most of the rest of the finale. I voiced my advanced enthusiasm for this week's episode in large part because it promised to utilize all of our favorite players -- Bobby, Castiel, Crowley and Meg -- and it delivered on that front. The episode was a fitting exit for Sera Gamble, who has always had a great grasp of Crowley's particular brand of wit, and all of the scenes involving the boys and Castiel, Meg and/or Crowley crackled with energy.
It's clear that the writers have been getting a lot of mileage out of Castiel's current lack of marbles, and Misha Collins did an excellent job delivering some truly bizarre lines. His fascination with board games -- Twister in particular -- was thoroughly enjoyable, and while I'm a little disappointed that we missed out on seeing the angel appear naked on Dean's car covered in bees, the mental image alone has a fair amount of value. I'm well aware that Castiel is a divisive character, so I'm sure there are some fans who dislike the fact that Dean and Castiel got zapped into purgatory without Sam, but to me, it's a good idea from both a creative and technical standpoint.
We might like to ignore this fact when we're selfishly enjoying one of our favorite shows, but Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles are pretty much the only actors on TV who don't have a full-time supporting cast to lighten their filming load. Padalecki has recently become a father, and I can attest from set visits that "Supernatural" is one of the most labor-intensive shows to film, in terms of the cast and crew's working hours, night shoots, stunts and special effects. The fact that these actors have managed seven years with practically no time off without having a meltdown is somewhat miraculous to me, and yet Ackles and Padalecki are still just as passionate and invested in the show as they were at the start. Splitting Sam and Dean up, as much as some fans may hate it, allows these hard working dudes a couple of extra days off a week to spend with their families, and if that keeps them from getting burned out and makes them more inclined to keep making the show for another couple of seasons, I'm all for it.
And from a creative standpoint: I've been with this show since the pilot in 2005, I adore the Sam and Dean dynamic and am wholly aware that the relationship between the brothers is the biggest part of "Supernatural's" success. But they've been together for seven years now, and there are only so many ways to tell that fraternal story without retreading old ground (some fans feel we've already retrod old ground a couple of times as it is). The fact of the matter is, adding new characters -- whether it's Jo and Ellen, Ruby and Bela, Bobby and Rufus or Castiel and Gabriel -- allow us to see Sam and Dean from new perspectives; they bring out new sides to the boys and force them to react in different ways than they'd react to each other.
We've seen Sam and Dean in sticky situations for years now, and we know how they respond when they're up the creek without a paddle, but we've yet to see how Dean and Castiel would react to being stuck in a foxhole together, or how Sam truly functions as Sam (as opposed to the diet, soulless version of Sam we saw in Season 6) without his brother. I, for one, am eager to see how Sam goes about rescuing Dean from purgatory now that no demons want to make a deal with him, and I want to see Dean tied back into the mythology the way he hasn't been since Season 4 -- not just as Sam's protector, but as someone who drives the mythology forward by acting instead of reacting (or drinking). The actors have recently expressed their desire to see Sam and Dean separated or old cast-members returned in various interviews, not because they hate each other, but because they want to explore new facets of characters that they've been playing for over half a decade. I think it's natural and I think the writers should be applauded for taking that risk. I highly doubt that any real separation would go on beyond a couple of episodes anyway, but if it means shaking up the status quo and offering a new perspective on such beloved characters, I'd say it's a worthwhile experiment.
That's not to say that things couldn't go wrong -- since every time Sam is left to his own devices he seems to end up chugging demon blood or cozying up to sociopaths like Grandpa Campbell, and in that way, the season finale also found itself retreading old ground. Will Dean's sojourn to purgatory be like his trip to hell at the end of Season 3? Time will tell, but Carver has a great track record with these characters so I'm more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
I was surprised (and pleased) that the episode chose to dispatch Bobby with comparatively little fanfare. Obviously, the character's first and greatest farewell, in "Death's Door," should be his enduring legacy, but I was expecting the episode to make more of a meal over Bobby descending into darkness. I'm glad Gamble didn't go that route, though -- having Bobby leave on his own terms was a fitting and poignant resolution, perfectly played by Jim Beaver and in-keeping with the character. I think it was entirely reasonable for Bobby to refuse to let the boys go (and thereby avoid dying on the Reaper's terms) and for him to later nobly decide that he needed to leave before he ended up hurting someone and becoming the thing he once hunted.
It was nice that Sam got that moment with Bobby -- and I thought it nicely mirrored the Season 1 finale, "Devil's Trap," when Dean was being attacked by Azazel in John's body, before his father reasserted himself to avoid causing his son any further pain. Sam hasn't had many moments like that with Bobby, so it was satisfying that he got at least one, allowing Bobby to illustrate his love for Sam before the older hunter said farewell. I also appreciated the decision not to show Bobby's spirit burning up; the moment was far more resonant simply from witnessing Sam and Dean's reactions, because Bobby isn't some monster that we should relish seeing disintegrated. A part of me does feel like "Death's Door" should have been the character's last appearance, but I adore Jim Beaver so much that I was happy to take a little extra time, especially since the writers avoided compromising the integrity of the character.
And how fantastic was it to see the return of the Impala, triumphantly set to Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild?" Absence certainly makes the heart grow fonder, and I just hope we'll never have to be without Dean's "baby" for such a long time again. I'm surprised he trusted Meg with it, though, even though she was playing the distraction. I don't love Rachel Miner's portrayal half as much as I adored Nicki Aycox's (Aycox had a lot more subtlety) but I'm still intrigued to see what Crowley has planned for her. Whatever it is, I hope when we next see Meg, we'll see the Meg of the first two seasons, motivation-wise; it's hard to reconcile the demon who possessed Sam and went on a killing and torture spree in the phenomenal "Born Under a Bad Sign" with the character we've seen in the past couple of years, and I'm far more enamored of the evil version.
I loved the pacing, the wit and the focus of "Survival of the Fittest," but I did have two complaints: first, the bizarre and, frankly, disturbing decision to make Polly the hapless human guinea pig take off her dress before Dick stuck her with the toxin -- it was narratively unnecessary and distractingly gratuitous, especially considering the episode was written by a woman. Second, the inclusion of Kevin the Prophet. Despite the racial stereotyping, I've actually enjoyed Kevin as a character and I'm looking forward to see what the writers do with him next season, but I have to admit, he's seemed a little extraneous since "Reading is Fundamental." Once he translated the stone tablet, why was he useful to Dick? And why was he useful enough for Crowley to capture him? He didn't get to accomplish much this week or last, and Crowley's nabbing of him seemed abrupt. I wish the writers had found another way to decipher the Word of God (couldn't Cas have done it?) so that the prophet wasn't necessary at all -- better to never introduce him than to just have him present for the sake of it. I'm sure the writers will find a way to tie him into Season 8 in a more meaningful way, but it still felt sloppy in an otherwise tightly-plotted hour.
When "Supernatural" episodes are at their finest, the hour seems to fly by, and that was the case with "Survival of the Fittest." It was an engaging and tense hour from start to finish, with satisfying pay-offs for those of us that enjoy Castiel's inclusion in the story; a delicious return for Mark Sheppard, who can chew scenery in his sleep and steal scenes with the mere quirk of an eyebrow; and a suitably messy send-off for Dick. I love the idea of purgatory as some wild, uncharted forest, full of vanquished monsters that are probably eager to exact revenge on Dean, and I'm intrigued to see how much further Carver will explore that untapped resource next season -- hopefully allowing Sam and Dean to grow individually so that they'll have fresh, unique dynamics to explore once they're reunited. And, to close, I'd like to thank Sera Gamble for seven years of hard work and passionate writing, and congratulate the talented Jeremy Carver for getting the chance to continue Sam and Dean's inspiring journey -- I'll certainly be along for the ride.
What did you think of "Supernatural's" Season 7 finale? Were you pleased by the show's shocking cliffhanger? Saddened to see Bobby go? Share your reactions and predictions for next season below!
"Supernatural" returns in the fall with Season 8 on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on The CW.