The biggest problem for a show in its tenth season is keeping the drama fresh. Expectations are high, and too many prior episodes have set a very high bar. Thanks to last week’s setup with the excellent episode “Reichenbach,” everything was laid out to deliver a compelling, jaw dropping, emotional drama. That’s where “Soul Survivor” struggled.
It was a compelling setup, everything looked great on paper but in the end there was just something missing. Perhaps it was that something we’ve grown to expect with dramatic, potentially explosive “Supernatural” episodes – tension so thick one could cut it with a knife, breath taking pacing that keeps us on the edge of our seat the entire hour, and playing up vital scenes to deliver the greatest emotional impact possible.
Before I risk the ire of fangirls, I do accept that “Supernatural” is not the same show it was. Holding it to the high standards of the earlier seasons is not practical. I also know that the show has fallen into a pattern of providing adequate stories just to keep the ball rolling. The most loyal fan will defend that it’s better than no “Supernatural” at all. I can’t argue that. But I can argue that if “Soul Survivor” had been written by Ben Edlund, we’d probably have gotten a stunning breath taker with a very exciting/engaging story. If it had been written by a Sera Gamble or an Eric Kripke there would have been far more strife tacked onto those brotherly scenes, so much so it would have induced a waterfall of tears. If it had been written by anyone more skilled, our time wouldn’t have been wasted with light amounts of Sam and Dean, a jagged plot, cartoonish scenes of Crowley in Hell (something usually good that turned out to be useless filler) and Castiel and Hannah going through that awkward sexual tension that happens in angel high school rather than getting to the heart of the brotherly drama, which ended up being so little of the story.
But all that implies that I thought the whole episode was a total waste. It wasn’t. It was adequate and hit some beats. In other words, it was okay. I personally loved the Sam and Dean scenes, especially once I watched them on the DVR in progression, skipping the rest. When all the other parts were intertwined, it fell apart. Subtraction by addition.
Sam Winchester absolutely broke my heart. Jared again gave an amazing performance. After everything, all the crap he’s been through, he maintained his devotion to his brother, reminding himself that all those hurtful words were not coming from Dean. He refused to believe that was his real brother behind the callous demon, even though Dean said just about everything that would hit close to home.
Sam couldn’t bear the thought that injecting Dean with the blood was killing him. Those serious doubts tore him apart emotionally because if the blood ritual didn’t work, the alternative option was much worse. Sam would have to kill Dean. Calling Castiel was the reassurance he needed to keep going with the ritual. It gave him the resolve to believe that was getting his brother back no matter what and he had to be strong.
Sam’s angst and heartache through this whole process was pitch perfect. He clearly tried to put on the brave front, even though he was falling apart on the inside. Trying to turn Dean didn’t go the way it had with Crowley, there was no emotional breakdown or signs of humanity. Considering Dean was able to escape the trap it was turning him human, but the evil demon remained in control. Despite how unnerving this development was, Sam kept trying. The photos in Dean’s room added a nice sentimental touch through the story. The fact that Dean was caught looking through those same photos again in the end served as a much needed reminder to him too. Family is what makes them strong and family is all they have. At least the writers remained devoted to that core theme.
The “cat and mouse” hunting scene in the bunker for the most part was pretty awesome and really turned up the tension between the brothers. The visuals alone were amazing. Those hallways were the perfect setting for an intense scene like this and the way the whole pursuit was shot it took full advantage the opportunities the set offered. That is a testament to the directing choices in the episode (a huge kudos to Jensen). There were several times I thought Sam would break, especially when Dean broke out of the Electrical room. Sam knew that he only had one option left at that point and it was his worse nightmare come true. Dean forced him to make that horrible choice, kill him or die. More on that in a minute though.
As for Dean, I can’t help but ponder what could be going through his mind right now. Surely he remembers all he’s done and what the MOC made him. His remorse over trying to kill Sam was deep and troubling. He honestly believed that Sam wouldn’t want to be around him anymore. It’s my sense that he’s also worried that he’ll do that again someday rather than what he did in the bunker hours earlier. I really liked how he was disoriented and just plain off after the whole thing. There were no tears, no crushing emotional responses. He just wasn’t sure where to go from this. He’s still not comfortable in his own skin and you have to wonder how long, if ever, it will take him to get that way.
The end made a lot of sense to me. It was too soon for that brotherly hug, that deep talk. They were both brutally exhausted over the months long ordeal, not just the prior 8 hours (or however many hours it ended up taking), and both have plenty to think about. It’ll happen in time. Part of me I really wishes that Castiel had been there with Sam the whole time, like he was with Dean last season when they were trying to get Gadreel out of Sam in “Road Trip.” The phone calls lacked intimacy and failed to give the support that Sam so desperately needed. At least he was there at the end to offer Sam support and help with Dean. Sam was exhausted, but his plan of getting Dean loaded up on cholesterol and then getting drunk was cute and perfect. He’s earned that, even though it was clear that the victory was only temporary. The Mark of Cain is still there and will still affect Dean. One problem at a time. That’s the way the Winchesters roll.
It was nice that Dean got to talk with Castiel as well, even though I know people wanted to see Sam and Dean have their chat. That will happen eventually. The moment was sweet and something you’d expect between two old friends. Cas assured that Sam isn’t going to leave Dean and understood that wasn’t him trying to kill him. Cas even wisely advised Dean to take a break from things. The MOC is still very much a concern. Dean doesn’t need to be out there killing anytime soon and Heaven and Hell do seem to be under control. Castiel knows he’s on borrowed time, so perhaps that will be his mission in the upcoming months, find a solution for the MOC problem. It’s what Crowley wants and no doubt Crowley won’t stop helping Castiel until the issue is taken care of as well.
Show, that’s the best you can do for Sam’s “despicable” actions that made him a worse monster than Dean? Setting up a low life like Lester to make a demon deal so he could trap a crossroads demon and interrogate her? REALLY? How many of us were thinking Lester deserved it? Could they have come up with a more sympathetic character? I can think of numerous, far worse atrocities that Sam has committed through the years. Remember him bleeding an innocent, screaming nurse dry of blood in “Lucifer Rising?” Remember when his soulless self actually let Dean get turned into a vampire? Remember when his soulless counterpart again killed innocent hostage Robin in a bar to take away the demon’s leverage? How about the numerous other innocent possessed hosts he’s killed with the demon knife? That was what Carver has been teasing since Comic Con? Color me not just underwhelmed, but extremely disappointed. Demon Dean was a far worse monster, and Sam’s guilt over the whole matter felt very contrived.
The side stories of Crowley and Castiel/Hannah were very weak, although I LOVED that it was Crowley who saved the day for Castiel, albeit temporarily. I also called it as soon as I saw an angel attacking in the previews. Sure, he could have used the chance to kill Castiel, but instead he found him more useful alive. Moose needed help, and Castiel was the one that could help neutralize Dean and take all that power away from him, or better yet make the hard decision to kill Dean if that was necessary. I personally think that Crowley has a soft spot for the trench coated angel, much like he does for Sam and Dean. They have a history. Who’s on board for more adventures of Crowley and Castiel in the future?
The bits between Castiel and Hannah were slow and once again fell into pointless territory. Their scenes ended up serving as filler where we didn’t need filler, which was a shame given the compelling emotional story they had last week. It’s about time they got out of Castiel’s gold Lincoln pimp car and did something else. I won’t discuss the very strange scene with Castiel kindly shooting down her attempts at a relationship. That was just too odd and unnecessary for words.
What is the upside of making Crowley so clownish? That scene with him on the throne in Hell, it’s exactly the sort of “cheesy cliché” that Eric Kripke vowed to avoid during his tenure. That’s why he wouldn’t show scenes in Hell. He went through painstaking detail when showing Dean on meathooks in “No Rest For The Wicked” and that was only a few seconds because that’s all the budget would allow. It matched his vision of Hell. This wasn’t it, and I find the act more than just negligence by a writing team, but total blatant disrespect to Kripke’s foundation. The place wasn’t menacing or fearsome, it looked like a cheap set. Since when is Hell so well lit? The place had windows! I want to practically smell the brimstone when I see Hell. This is one of the only times on record that I think the set decorators let us down (the other being “Taxi Driver”, also written by Ross-Leming and Buckner). I’m very, very tired of Crowley pining away for Dean too. Get over it! Get him back to being the brilliant and scheming King of Hell he should be, like when he saved Castiel.
I should lower my standards, but I concede when coming off something beautiful like “Reichenbach” last week, my expectations were a bit higher than normal. Much like season seven’s “The Girl Next Door” or season eight’s “Taxi Driver,” this episode ended up being a HUGE wasted opportunity, one that’s very hard for a loyal fan to swallow. It didn’t suck, but it could have been so much more.
So much more could have been done with the cure ritual. Inject a bunch of blood and Dean and eventually it works? I know it was supposed to be different than when Sam was curing Crowley in “Sacrifice” and they needed a way for Dean to escape, but I missed not getting the gradual personality changes, the snarky lines, the deep emotional strife, the physical distress, and the soul searching that Crowley did during those times as he was slowly transitioning to human. Mark Sheppard positively KILLED that performance. We know that Jensen is capable of such amazing scenes as well and he deserved better material other than being a grunting jerk the whole time. We could have had something really incredible and I feel like he was robbed of that.
That lack of “gravitas” in the writing failed to sell the whole cure ritual for me. Heck, even the footage of the priest curing the demon in “Clip Show” was gut wrenching and dramatic. Perhaps Ross-Leming and Buckner omitted Dean’s struggle because they knew they couldn’t compete with how it was done before? Again, I imagine in my head what Ben Edlund could have done with it.
The cat and mouse scene in the bunker was good, but it also could have gone longer and been more drawn out. Remember pursuing the shifter at the bank in “Nightshifter?” That! Sam could have set more clever traps for Dean, especially considering Dean was a terrifying brute with a hammer. I'm most disappointed though with the outcome. Ultimately, it came down to whether Sam would be able to have the nerve to kill Dean. Of course he couldn’t do it. Dean had the same problem with Sam, most notably when Sam was possessed in “Born Under a Bad Sign.” But to have Castiel right there? Sam could see he was there and that’s one reason why he backed down. It cheapened the moment and the decision. I would have liked to have seen Sam find the clever way out of it on his own. Again, the show has forgotten he’s a pretty smart guy and he’s the one that should be saving Dean. It also diminishes the character quite a bit (a problem that’s been happening a lot with all these characters the last few seasons).
To put it simply, I watch every week to be moved emotionally and excited by the story. I wasn’t. The episode was okay, but not mind blowing. Yes, there were some moments here and there, a few bits that triggered some deep sympathy and heartache within, but the jagged and inconsistent pacing of the episode ripped me from any those feelings I got to experience. Good storytelling isn’t short attention span theater, cutting from plot to plot, showing random acts by the characters instead of a logical progression. It’s knowing when to slow down to deliver the right emotional punches. It’s knowing how to build a story into a big escalation where things get very dicey. It’s also trying to surprise the audiences with clever plotting rather than the total predictability we got here. It not only challenges and tests the characters, it engages the audience as well and gets them excited for the following weeks. Fans care about these characters, and it hurts when an episode gives them a disservice, no matter who the character is.
Overall, my grade for “Soul Survivor” is a C+. It scored big bonus points for acting and directing but ultimately, this could have been a classic! It should have been a classic. It wasn’t a classic. It goes on my long growing list of episodes I really have no desire to watch again. Who knows what next week will bring, but please understand if my excitement is a little deflated right now. I’ll be there next week with cautious optimism, but I’m also left wondering how much longer fan goodwill as opposed to great storytelling and good character development can keep this show going. Probably a long time. That is the blessing and the curse of “Supernatural.”
What did you think of "Soul Survivor?"