Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 8, Episode 4 of The CW's "Supernatural," entitled "Bitten."
"Supernatural" episodes that focus on supporting characters or guest stars can be a mixed bag -- for every "Man Who Would Be King" there's a "Roadkill" -- and even episodes that are arguably well-executed, such as "Ghostfacers," can still annoy fans who tune in for 100 percent Sam and Dean with no additives or preservatives.
Thus, I'm sure "Bitten" will be a divisive installment for many viewers, especially since it slows down the show's momentum to have "filler" episodes so early in the season and in such quick succession. While I would've preferred to see the season's mythology more firmly established in the first run of episodes, I suspect that The CW is trying to capitalize on lead-in "Arrow's" robust audience and hook a few new viewers with these standalone entries.
So I'm not going to waste time griping that Kevin, Castiel and Benny have been back-burnered (since the narrative is going to pick up again next week), and instead view "Bitten" as it was intended: as a self-contained story. In that respect, I felt it worked very well. Would I have preferred more Sam and Dean, and less obnoxious college kids? Sure, but as a conceit, and to capitalize on the "Paranormal Activity"/"Blair Witch"/"Chronicle" trend, it proved to be an engaging hour, building on the lessons learned in "Ghostfacers" in order to stitch together an episode that was 90 percent "found footage."
I like it when my TV shows take risks with form and function, and I watch "Supernatural" for the character dynamics, not for the A to B, Monster Of The Week procedural format, which I frankly consider to be the least compelling aspect of the series (if that was what I enjoyed, I'd be watching "Law and CSI: UST FBI WTF Miami").
So if I'm not getting my Winchester family drama or some heaven and hell mythology, I at least expect the show to attempt dynamic, creative experiments in regards to how they tell a story, which is why episodes like "Mystery Spot," "Ghostfacers" and "Changing Channels" work so well for me. Season 2's "Roadkill" also technically falls into that category, since it attempted to tell the story from the "monster's" perspective, but Molly was so bland it was hard to feel much empathy for her. If you found "Bitten's" three protagonists more obnoxious than you found the episode's editing technique compelling, I'm guessing you were thoroughly bored by it, but that's why TV is an entirely subjective art form.
For me, any obnoxiousness was offset by the fast pace of the episode; the new perspective of watching Sam and Dean do their jobs from the outside, with kids who were utterly oblivious to what they were dealing with (whereas the Ghostfacers were actively seeking out spooky stuff); the opportunities said scenario provided for tongue-in-cheek meta without breaking the fourth wall; and, from a film geek standpoint, seeing the way director Thomas J. Wright and writer Robbie Thompson fashioned an episode in a new way, especially in terms of making the practical effects look realistic when there are fewer ways to make the CGI convincing on a handicam.
When a MOTW story is weak, the episode can drag and feel far longer than 43 minutes, and I didn't feel that for a moment with "Bitten," which contained more than a few knowing winks to the audience: Sam and Dean being described as Starsky and Hutch or Rizzoli and Isles, the well-worn joke about outsiders mistaking them for a couple, and even a quip about how much they angst and talk about their time apart this season. After going so overtly meta over the past few years, it's nice for the writers to be able to nod to fans without going full "French Mistake." Will Dean try and curb his "awesome" habit from now on? I'm guessing not, but it was a cute moment.
Of course, since this was Robbie Thompson (who wrote all of the strongest non-Edlund/Gamble episodes of last season -- "Slash Fiction," "Time After Time" and "The Girl With the Dungeons and Dragons Tattoo") there was also a fair amount of symbolism and nuance in the script. On the surface, it was a typical tale of three kids getting caught up in something they didn't understand and never asked for and, as a result, giving in to their darker impulses, which explains the use of "Lord of the Flies" as a framing device.
Kate, Brian and Michael's evolution (devolution?) from completely typical students into wild animals with no sense of self-control clearly followed the progression of William Golding's novel, but the parallels between their stories and Dean's time in Purgatory are also fairly evident. People will do all sorts of things in the name of survival, and whether they end up disgusted by it or empowered by it entirely depends on the person. Michael was horrified by what he became after being bitten, while Brian actively sought it out in an effort to be less like poor, maligned Piggy. One could also argue that Michael's reluctance to embrace his power is comparative to Sam trying to avoid the fact that hunting will always be in his blood.
And, unlike last season's heavy-handed "Girl Next Door," this script actually allowed us to see Sam and Dean's current motivation with some degree of subtlety. Last season, Dean was cynical and nihilistic and refused to give any monster the benefit of the doubt, but both he and Sam were willing to let Kate go this time around. Obviously, Dean wants to believe the best of Kate because he wants to believe the best of Benny, who could also be out murdering up a storm now that he's free of Purgatory, and his newfound faith in creatures he would ordinarily kill without question is a marked character shift. It probably says as much about his own desire for rehabilitation as it does for Benny's, given that he was apparently even more bloodthirsty than the vampire was in Purgatory. Obviously, I'm still dubious about Benny (and fairly dubious about Kate), so I'm wondering if both decisions will end up biting Sam and Dean in the ass somewhere down the line. It's telling that Kate pointed out "I didn't choose this" as her closing argument, something both Winchesters can relate to at this point in the series, and it was nice that even in an episode that featured so little Sam and Dean screen-time, Thompson still brought it back to our brothers in the end.
"Supernatural" airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on The CW.
Did you enjoy "Bitten," or did the lack of Sam and Dean bother you? Weigh in below.