Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 8, Episode 1 of The CW's "Supernatural," entitled "We Need to Talk About Kevin."
The boys are back in town -- and thank Chuck for that -- since it seems like collective anticipation for Season 8 has reached boiling point over the past couple of weeks. With all the spoilers, teases and previews that have been trickling out since the show appeared at Comic-Con in July, we've had three months of pure speculation, and it will be nice to finally lay a few fears to rest and witness exactly what new showrunner Jeremy Carver has planned.
First, the good: Thematically, the episode felt nostalgic in ways that Seasons 6 and 7 purported to be but rarely ever managed. It seemed like we got more of a sense of the boys on the road, pounding the pavement and chasing down leads the way they did back in Season 1, before the dearly departed Bobby (Jim Beaver) and his encyclopedic collection of lore started doing all of Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean's (Jensen Ackles) legwork for them. We saw Sam being a tech wizard and pulling off hacking tricks that went completely over Dean's head again; the brothers fondly bickering over the rules of the car; Sam instinctively buying Dean a burger and fries because he knows his brother too well; and a general return to the banter and quippiness that has often felt lacking in recent years. Carver has an excellent grasp of Sam and Dean's voices, even after his time away from the show, and it's nice to see an episode striking the right balance between drama and levity again, after a lot of tonally uneven scripts over the past few seasons.
"We Need To Talk About Kevin" also echoed a few narrative choices from earlier years, inverting the Season 6 set-up that saw Dean attempting to live a normal life while Sam was trapped in Lucifer's cage. Dean's return from Purgatory didn't have quite the same gravitas as his return from Hell, but Ackles did a phenomenal job conveying Dean's raw, nervous energy -- Dean seemed to be on edge in every scene, unable to quite adjust to the reality of being "safe" after a year of running for his life from the things he once hunted. No scene summed up that tension more effectively than Dean's bewildered examination of a vending machine, seemingly overwhelmed with the concept of having choices again. Ackles has compared Dean's return to "The Hurt Locker" and the way Jeremy Renner's character had a difficult time readjusting to civilian life after returning from combat, and Ackles' choices in the episode made all that trauma and stress readily apparent without Dean ever needing to say a word about it. Carver also managed to capture Dean's mindset in a more humorous way with Dean's surprised gratitude when Sam ordered him the aforementioned burger -- a sweetly subtle moment that illustrated just how well these brothers know each other.
I was also surprised by how much I enjoyed Benny's introduction. The show has a spotty track record with introducing recurring characters (although it admittedly does a better job with the male characters than the females), and my initial reaction was to compare the vampire with Gordon Walker. The situations aren't identical, because Dean immediately warmed to Gordon and felt inclined to trust him as a fellow hunter, whereas he was obviously more wary of Benny after their first meeting in Purgatory, but I suspect Gordon and Benny's character arcs will share a similar trajectory (and not just because Benny's a vampire).
Their relationship will apparently be sketched out in much greater detail through flashbacks, but obviously Benny is an unknown quantity with dark, monstrous impulses (since he doesn't seem anywhere near as altruistic or self-controlled as Lenore, and apparently likes to lurk ominously around funerals) and now that they're topside, Dean seems understandably reluctant to let the vampire into his everyday life. It seems like a "what happens in Purgatory stays in Purgatory" kind of situation, but is that because Dean did things that he's ashamed of in Purgatory, or because he thinks Sam would judge him for working with a vampire? I'm guessing the former.
All of this ties into one of the main mysteries of the first half of the season: What happened to Castiel? Dean was so reluctant to go into any detail with Sam that something bad clearly went down, likely something that Dean feels guilty about. It was clear that Dean was singularly focused on finding Cas (or "the angel," as he was seemingly referred to by everyone in Purgatory) during his early days in the wilderness, especially since he refused to take Benny's escape route if Cas wasn't part of the deal. So did Benny turn Dean against Cas, or somehow put the angel into harm's way to clear the path for his own escape? Maybe it would've been impossible for Dean to carry more than one soul back with him, so Benny tried to "take care" of the opposition? Either way, I'm intrigued to see it all unfold, and entirely certain that Castiel isn't gone for good, regardless of what went down between the three of them.
As I stated earlier, the "quest" aspect of the new season appeals to me, and not just because it's a throwback to earlier year. We've learned from experience that villains who have a personal connection to the Winchesters are far more effective antagonists than random foes like Eve or the Leviathans, so Crowley is perfectly positioned to be a real threat to the boys, having known them long enough to know all their weak spots. I'm equally intrigued by the idea of closing the gates of Hell as a season-long arc, especially because it sounds like Carver has plenty of ideas for how that story can dovetail into related problems that can sustain future seasons. Kripke's five-year plan may have ended up equal parts luck and judgment, but I feel like the show has always done better with a serialized throughline, and the season-by-season foes of the last two years just didn't have the same potency as Azazel or Lucifer.
I was also pleased with the new dynamic that Kevin brought to the episode -- not only did he serve as the catalyst to reel Sam back into the family business (with a nudge from Dean, of course), he also demonstrated impressive comedic timing. His "there's a demon in you and you're going to your safety school" delivery certainly got the biggest reaction from the reporters who screened the episode early.
In many ways, as I said in my episode preview, Kevin has somewhat taken over the role of everyman that Sam occupied in Season 1; while Sam and Dean are now hardened by all the horrors they've witnessed and the crises they've averted, the dangers of hunting are still new to Kevin, and although he's surprisingly self-sufficient when left to his own devices, he still has that innocence and naivety that the Winchesters lost a long time ago. It's refreshing to see that more earnest mindset make a return, and hopefully he can offer new opportunities for the Winchesters to relate to him and each other. As much as we all love Sam and Dean's bond, supporting characters remain essential in order to prevent the stories from becoming stale -- after seven seasons, we've seen Sam and Dean interacting, clashing and working together in almost every possible scenario, so it's good to have another outside perspective that can help shape their understanding of each other.
It seems like Sam and Kevin are already bonding over their reluctance to be involved in the hunt, while Dean's post-Purgatory mindset appears to be as gung-ho as it was in Seasons 1 and 2. It's hard to tell whether Dean's attitude is just a coping mechanism to distract him from what might've happened in Purgatory, or whether Purgatory truly changed him into a more bloodthirsty warrior. Extrapolating from Dean and Benny's conversation at the end of the episode, in which the vampire implied Dean had potentially enjoyed the freedom of Purgatory a little too much, I'm interested to see whether the writers link that bloodlust back to Dean's time in Hell and his aptitude for torture under Alistair's tutelage. Sam has certainly struggled with his inherent darkness thanks to the demon blood addiction and his destiny as Lucifer's vessel, but Dean has some equally dark impulses that he seems to have fought to ignore over the years.
Which leads us to the "bad," or at least, the most controversial aspect of the episode: How Sam is presented in the premiere. I've already heard from a number of fans on this subject via Twitter and the comments on various posts, and the major stumbling block for many seems to be the suggestion that Sam wouldn't look for Dean after he disappeared. Upon first viewing the episode, I certainly knew that said storytelling decision would cause a fair amount of backlash, because it does seem to paint Sam in an unsympathetic light.
This is what Carver (who wrote the premiere) said of the decision:
"Certainly, when I came back to the show, I was staring at a landscape which was laid out by Bob and Sera, [what they] gracefully gave me, and to pick it up was [Crowley's line], "You are truly alone." So we really went into the idea of, "What does that mean? What kind of impact does that have on somebody, and how might that affect your mindset?" We talk about it in Episode 1. Dean talks about it: "We always ignored the advice we gave to each other" and what happens if someone actually took it? [As for] how long Sam is made to pay for this ... I think one of the things we really like about particularly the first 13 is the way we're playing with perception because right now, Dean is piling on Sam somewhat for this, and so what happens is these brothers start to discover more about what they've done in their past year and might those tables turn in terms of who has to answer for what? So I think ... everyone will get their licks in. No one's going to be a beaten dog for too long."
It seems as though Carver was just working with what he'd been given when he jumped on board after the Season 7 finale, and perhaps it seemed to be the most logical progression from Crowley's line. I can see how exploring that question would be alluring from a storytelling standpoint, mostly because Dean and Sam have already made multiple misguided attempts to rescue each other and sacrifice themselves for each other, so why would the writers want to mine that ground all over again for the third or fourth time? On the other hand, it seems easy for us to say that they could've tossed in some throwaway line about Sam looking for Dean for a couple of months and giving up when he didn't find any leads -- but would that token excuse really change anything?
I'll admit it doesn't bother me as much as it seemingly bothers some.
Word vomit alert: I can concede that given what we've seen of the brothers' relationship up to this point, it could appear out of character that Sam wouldn't give a cursory look for Dean after his disappearance, but we've seen grief and loneliness make Sam do some questionable things in the past -- like hook up with a demon chick and start drinking her blood, for example. To play devil's advocate, I think a case can be made that Sam was lost and looking for an anchor, and then he happened to hit a dog (trauma on top of trauma), meet a girl when he was in a vulnerable place, and decided to grasp on to the misguided notion that he could bury his loss under a desire for a fresh start.
People deal with grief in wildly different ways, as Dean and Sam have illustrated over the past seven years, and it's important to remember that at the end of Season 7, Sam was coming off a particularly rough period. He'd spent months being plagued by hallucinations of Lucifer and nightmares about being back in the cage, barely sleeping or eating or functioning at all, so it doesn't seem unrealistic to me that losing Dean again might be enough to send him off the deep end and into a dark and nihilistic place (that's certainly what losing Castiel and Bobby did to Dean last year).
I'll repeat what I said in the premiere preview piece, because it sums up my feelings on the matter fairly well: Sam has always craved a normal life, so without any family left, I don't believe it's entirely out of character for him to cling to something grounded and to want to distance himself from the life that took all his loved ones away from him.
Dean, on the other hand, has always doubted his ability to do anything except hunt and be with his family (which is why his attempt at a normal life failed in Season 6). Last season, that lack of purpose coupled with grief made him careless and suicidal, whereas this season, his time in Purgatory seems to have crystallized his resolve to get back to "the family business." He's focused on the hunt, while Sam is reluctant to get involved, just as they were in Season 1, but both of those decisions seem motivated by all the things they've experienced up to this point. I feel like it's a nuanced way for Carver to reassert how different these two men are as characters, and to emphasize their opposing but equally believable ways of coping with loss and trauma. They've never reacted to any situation in the same way, which makes them a great team, but I firmly believe that this season is an exercise in bringing them back together as grown-ups with a new sense of purpose, regardless of where they start the season. You may disagree entirely with that assertion, and that's okay, but that's my inelegant way of summing up why I'm not going to write off the entire season based on one narrative decision in the premiere.
Besides, I don't believe that Dean will hold a grudge for long, because deep down, he knows he and Sam have always viewed hunting differently. For Dean, "the family business" has always seemed like a birthright, and it's something John began grooming him for long before he was mature enough to really handle that kind of expectation. Sam, on the other hand, has always rebelled against his so-called destiny and tried to emphasize the importance of free will over duty, a mindset Dean started to share in Season 4. It's also important to question whether Sam has been holding on to that concept of lost normalcy for all these years, ever since he lost Jessica and gave up on law school. He had a taste of a "safe" life all too briefly, so perhaps he felt he owed it to himself to truly give himself a second shot at it, especially since he believed he no longer had John or Dean or anyone else to show up one night and drag him back into the hunt.
One of the most interesting things about the show is the way it has shifted the brothers' positions over the past seven years -- last season, Dean had seemingly come to view hunting as his only option in life and that, until he managed to kill himself, he might as well fight monsters because that was all he believed he was good for -- a particularly potent brand of self-loathing which goes all the way back to the Yellow Eyed Demon's observation in "Devil's Trap" that Sam and John "don't need you, not like you need them."
Sam, on the other hand, seemed to be slowly coming around to the idea that a destiny in which you were saving people wasn't such a bad thing -- but hunting was never his whole identity the way it seemed to be Dean's, illustrated in the way Sam has always been better at interpersonal communication and blending in amongst the regular folks in a way Dean never has.
So, since Dean couldn't physically sustain that kind of self-destructive mindset without the show spiraling into a seriously depressing place (which it did a couple times during Seasons 6 and 7), from a narrative perspective, Sam's perspective had to evolve too. Regardless of whether we think that's the right storytelling decision on the writers' part, I firmly believe that this season will end with the brothers truly on the same page in a way they haven't ever really been before, which can only strengthen their bond. Ultimately, whether we approve or not, this is the storytelling choice the writers have chosen to go with, so we can debate Sam's characterization endlessly, but it sadly won't change how the season started out, and I'm not about to throw the baby out with the bathwater and boycott the show because of it.
I'm excited about exploring facets of Sam and Dean's characters that we might not have seen before; I want to see what a domesticated, carefree Sam looks like -- lord knows the guy deserves a break after being crushed by the weight of a Biblical destiny for the past seven years. And I'm eager to see Dean with a renewed clarity of purpose -- somewhere along the way he lost sight of the importance of the "saving people" part of the family motto and was just going through the motions, but the show wants us to remember that the world needs Sam and Dean Winchester to fight for it ("with great power ..." blah blah blah.), and it seems like Carver wants Sam and Dean to remember it too. So wherever the road takes the Winchesters from here, I know I'll be along for the ride. How about you?
"Supernatural" airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on The CW.
If you haven't already, check out our Q&A with executive producers Jeremy Carver and Robert Singer on what's ahead in Season 8.