2011-2012 season wrap: The highs and lows of Supernatural season seven

The 2011-2012 television season has been over for almost a couple of weeks month now, which means a sufficient amount of time has passed and we are primed to reflect. Over the next handful of days weeks, I will be producing some pieces and lists looking back on the season that was. I missed out on a lot because of my hectic schedule, but hopefully these full-season views will make up a little for the lack of episodic reviews or content throughout the early part of 2012. And lists are always fun, at least for me.

Watching your favorite television series grow old is a really weird experience. You still recognize the characters and the narrative tropes, and you’re often still charmed by both. Then oftentimes, something will happen that make you wince, or maybe even gag. But before long, you find yourself making excuses for those horrible events. “Well, the budget…” or “The writing staff isn’t what it used you be…” These caveats may be true, but they also don’t completely make up for the reality that maybe a series has told all the really engaging stories it can tell and it’s now just passing the time until the cancellation gods come a-callin’. 

This is where I am with Supernatural. There were some really great things in this just-concluded season, but also some really mediocre-to-awful things that made me yell JUST PUT IT DOWN to my television. Today, I’m going to go through some of these highs and lows with an eye on trying to figure out what the heck is really going on with this older series.

High: The opening two episodes

“Meet the New Boss” and “Hello, Cruel World” did their best to erase much of the distaste from season six in my mind by putting all sorts of pressure on Sam and Dean to survive. Those opening episodes had the intensity of great season finales and they made it seem like the brothers were really screwed, even though everyone at home knew that matters would stabilize eventually. Ben Edlund’s “Hello, Cruel World” is especially adept in this regard. The final sequence with Sam and Dean stuck in the ambulance, one with Lucifer visions and the other a broken leg, is tremendous. After years of slowly developing villains and a narrative, I appreciated how this season jumped right into the fight with the Leviathans because it created an even bleaker, but clearer path of antagonism.

Low: What came after the opening two episodes

No, I don’t mean the other 21 episodes. Nevertheless, one of the consequences of doing dramatic, hectic two episodes to start the season is that things eventually have to slow down. And I knew that. But here, it was as if Sera Gamble and her writing staff just immediately slammed on the breaks and avoided pushing Sam and Dean’s already-terrible circumstances further. While I understand the need to parcel out story, I think Supernatural tends to push big episodes or events to the side so it can return to its episodic shenanigans and nowhere was that more apparent than with this season. 

Low: Being lied to, sort of

One of the things that had me really excited about this season, especially after seeing the first few episodes, was this suggestion from Sera Gamble that Sam and Dean would be without their typical support system (Bobby) and even without other tertiary supports like libraries, the internet, etc. The idea of Sam and Dean having to go even further off the grid to solve their problems, and do so without Bobby, was a really intriguing idea, at least in the context of a seventh season where Great Ideas are hard to come by at times. 

The first few episodes, “Slash Fiction” in particular, deals with these ideas phenomenally. The story always seems to work when Sam and Dean are labeled as fugitives, and watching the Leviathan back them into a corner with the mass executions was a really wonderful idea that should have accomplished the kind of things that Gamble had been pattering on about since Comic-Con 2011. Unfortunately, outside of a few mentions here and there and a car change, it never felt like Sam and Dean were trying that hard to stay out of the public eye one bit. In fact, most of the episodes after “Slash Fiction” featured the brothers working cases almost exactly like they always do.

Clearly, losing Bobby did put some pressure on the boys (more on that in a minute). Bu even there, the writers replaced him with Frank as the Exposition Machine, so the loss wasn’t felt that much, at least in that one regard.

There’s always a danger with getting too wrapped up in what a showrunner says, and there’s no question that reading all those quotes from Gamble primed me for certain expectations that the series simply didn’t follow through on. However, I’m not misjudging the season solely on what Gamble said, considering that “Slash Fiction” was the episodic embodiment of all the things she said were going to happen. The following episodes, for whatever reason, simply didn’t keep that story or atmosphere alive in the way that “Fiction” suggested they would.

High: Dick Roman

Like with every season of Supernatural, the big villain’s ultimate plan didn’t really add up to much and he was dispatched in a stupidly easy fashion. Unfortunately, I’ve come to expect that from the series, mostly because the budget just isn’t in place for there to be a massive war or fight in a season finale. 

Thankfully though, this season the writers crafted a villain whose power didn’t necessary lie in sheer physicality or threatening violence. The Leviathan as a whole presented those challenges to the Winchesters, but Dick Roman, the lead dog, was a much more compelling and complex character. Although I think that a lot of Dick’s success came about because of James Patrick Stuart’s fun, evocative performance, I also enjoyed the series’ somewhat ambitious attempts at social commentary with all the 1-percenter, big business and food industry stories floating around in the overarching narrative. It wasn’t all executed perfectly, and it was pretty straight-forward. However, Dick hoping to fatten up the human population as a way to enjoy eating them more was a fine way to keep the threat massive, but also grounded enough if that makes sense. 

Like so many things this season, I wish we would have seen more Dick Roman. The last half of the season threw out all sorts of interesting threads that could have been examined further, had the writers been willing to step away from Sam and Dean just a little bit more. 

Low: Sam and Dean’s individual stories, and their interactions with one another

I’ve seen a lot of folks complain about this on Twitter and Tumblr, both throughout the season and now that it’s complete, and while I don’t share their rabid enthusiasm for the cause, I agree with the basic argument that Sam and Dean’s interactions this season were…off. The conventions of the brothers’ relationship has become so formalized over almost 150 episodes, but this season it REALLY felt like they were going through the typical motions: Someone has a secret, they lie for a while and then eventually let it out, leaving the other shocked and dismayed, even though they had been accusing the other of keeping said secret for weeks. That happened here with Dean killing Amy and a little bit with Sam looking for Bobby without Dean. 

I understand that these things are going to happen and the accusatory conversations will never stop. However, what bothered me about the way they unspooled this season is how underdeveloped they were. The series’ short-hand method of storytelling and the assumption that we already understand and know how these characters will and would interact harms the brothers’ relationship the most. Sam and Dean regularly spoke this season, and often offered to help one another with their big issues. But their interactions felt regularly cold and base-level, as if they didn’t truly care about what was happening to one another. They were having these conversations because the plot dictated that they have them; the emotion simply tapered off. 

Even on an individual level, I’m not sure what Sam and Dean really went through this year. Well, I know, but the series didn’t necessarily make me believe it. If you just read the synopsis for the season’s events, it would seem like all sorts of awful things happened. Sam was tormented by Lucifer. Dean lost Castiel and let his drinking problem get the best of him. And then Bobby. Even for Supernatural, that’s pretty grim. Yet, you wouldn’t exactly see that strife by watching a random episode. If the series is only going to have two lead characters, they need to be better-written. I’m not asking for sweeping, powerful arcs that last all season. But just follow through on some things. 

High/Low: Bobby’s death

This is the toughest one to write about. There’s no doubt that “Death’s Door” is one of the better episodes in the series’ run. Bobby’s initial passing was handled with respect and guided wonderfully by Jim Beaver’s performance. And later in the season, I liked how the series used Bobby as a way to tell a longer-form story about what kind of impact transferring from ghost to vengeful spirit can have on a soul (or whatever you want to call it).

Still though, I struggle with the series’ decision to kill Bobby off in the first place. Sure, his death and afterlife is really the only one the series could have explored to that degree that we at home would have cared about. But you know why? Because almost every secondary or tertiary character in the series’ world is dead — and most of them died for little reason. Supernatural has always axed people way too often — which results in having to manufacture dumb circumstances to bring them back, which is what happened with Jo this season — and once Bobby gets added to that long list, I’m not sure what else the writers can do to make a similar impact. The series strained to develop new recurring characters this season with Frank and Garth, but that’s hard to do in a seventh season, especially when the new characters look a lot like old characters we wish were still alive and we know they’ll end up dead anyway. 

High: The last few episodes

After a lot of episodic padding, the last four or five episodes kicked into a much higher gear. This isn’t a new development in the narrative world of Supernatural (or most other TV series), but the disparity in quality between the first few and the last few and everything else that came in the middle was certainly more pronounced this season (more on that momentarily). The closing episodes did an admirable job (re)establishing the Levianthans as a true threat and most importantly, coalescing a lot of compelling threads (Bobby’s thirst for revenge, Castiel’s return, angels, etc.) together into one package. I especially liked how the fight suddenly seemed a lot bigger once Cas, angels and Crowley got back into the ring. Supernatural cannot always pull off those BIG stories, but I’d rather that the writers keep trying to tell them anyway. The cliffhanger suggests intriguing things for next season as well.

Low: The season’s overall flow and execution of ideas

Ultimately, I would still call Supernatural a good series and certainly say that there were tons of good ideas floating around in this season’s 23 episodes. Unfortunately, the big problem with this season (and last season as well) is that most of those quality ideas weren’t fleshed out or executed in a redeeming fashion. Just think about all the fairly sizable stories told this season: Casitel’s disappearance and return, Leviathans, Dick Roman’s plan, Crowley’s deal-making, Return of the angels, Bobby’s death, Sam and Dean going further off the grid, Lucifer visions, Dean’s drinking. Those are just the ones I could think of off the top of my head. Only a few of those were given their just-due, and most were smashed together too quickly in the final stretch of episodes anyway. 

The problem I see with Supernatural in its current form is an inability to craft a season-long narrative with meaningful, logic beats along the way. The story began strong and ended strong, but wavered greatly in the middle — and not for a lack of ideas. Stories stopped and stalled, others were told to instead of shown to us. You can’t blame it all on the budget, or a reduced shooting schedule or whatever. So much of this season felt like Supernatural short-hand, where the writers crafted out stories on the white-board and then simply stopped. The details, the color was lacking in ways that it been so before. The result? A season full of good ideas, and even great individual episodes and moments, but one that is going to be remembered for its choppiness and probably its sloppiness as well.

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