Let’s Discuss: Where Did Supernatural Go Wrong, or Did it?
After reading this brilliant analysis on collider.com, "Supernatural Was at Its Best When It Was a Horror Show", I started a deeper look back to pinpoint when my discontent started spiraling. Like this article has contended, I think that once we got beyond the Kripke years, the shifts were not for the better. I don’t think it was any one point, the decline was gradual. Bit by bit, the show that I fell in love with began to fall apart.
So what were the tipping points? Here are three areas I think where the show strayed the most.
This is one of the primary arguments of the Collider article, and it’s dead on. The show used to look and feel darker. The article alludes to one reason for this: the switch in filming to digital from film. But that tends to only change the look. The eerie, haunted feel in the stories, the pained personal connection between Sam and Dean and the Monster of the Week/Victim of the Week, and the relief at the end that the monster was defeated but the war was far from over, really made the show something special. This was the heroism and sacrifice of Sam and Dean Winchester. Saving people, hunting things, the family business.
Sure, the escalation of the demon war and the introduction of angels changed things, but that tone was still very much existent in the beginning of season four. (I also agree with the author on season four. It is also my all time favorite batch of episodes as well). I think the show shifted tonally after the death of Kim Manners in the middle of season four. He knew how to visually sell the spooky while exposing the humanity of the Winchester brothers, just like he did on nine seasons of The X-Files. Horror isn’t about shock and awe, blood and gore, campy teenage slice and dice. It’s about digging deep into the psyche, examining what make us truly afraid, and overcoming those fears. Under Manners’ watch, the show delivered this beautifully.
Season five without Kim Manners was a bit more uneven in its visual tone, but it closed an ambitious and exciting myth arc with suspenseful stories and brilliant writing, all coming to a climax with the series masterpiece with “Swan Song.” It was a nail biting, gut wrenching story as Sam’s destiny finally came to be, a grave personal sacrifice in order to save the world. Dean was there by his side though, refusing to give up on his brother. It was shot and edited beautifully and brought real closure to the five year myth arc, save for the cliffhanger because the show was renewed.
Season six, with its new “noir” direction, started sapping the life out of the terror and what the show’s true mission was about. It instead became focused on the mystery of what happened to Sam and what Castiel was up to. Season seven then delivered the Leviathan camp fest from which the show never truly recovered. By the later seasons, the attention to tone was pretty much thrown out the window. The more colorful scenes were accompanied by a lot more camp in the delivery of the stories and the sets. Sure, there were rare gems that stayed true to the original mission of the series, but they were few and far between by season nine as Sam and Dean got absorbed by their own drama.
One example of tonal shift is with season two’s “Everybody Loves a Clown”, which touched on Sam’s childhood fear of clowns. It wasn’t a deep internal examination, but it did show just by facial expressions what happens when a deep seated fear works its way into adulthood. Making the clowns homicidal and creepy as Hell helped. Contrast that to the bright colors of the amusement center and constant clown gags of season seven’s “Plucky Pennywhistle’s Magical Menagerie” that turned Sam’s clown phobia into a punchline rather than a creepy mystery. Sure, it was cute, but it didn’t pack the same punch. Instead of feeling Sam’s pain, I wanted him to man up.
Losing the Heart of the Storytelling
I remember sitting in a hotel room in Chicago with Lynn Zubernis and Maureen Ryan back in season seven, all of us trying to pinpoint why Supernatural was straying at the time. We had just watched “Shut Up Dr. Phil” and weren’t impressed. The show felt off and we felt at the time it was headed in the wrong direction. After some debate, we came to a consensus about one thing: the show had lost its heart in the storytelling. What did we mean by heart? Basically, they were losing the human condition of the story.
The Collider article touched on this as well with the comment that Sam and Dean used to care about saving people. Why did they stop caring about saving possessed victims? They got rather carefree with killing them in later years. Remember the days when Sam and Dean were uncompromising in not sacrificing innocent lives? Remember how they drew the line in the sand, choosing to take a moral high ground despite what they were up against. I always remember Dean choosing not to sacrifice the virgin in “Jus In Bello,” even though that would have gotten them out of their situation. We used to get that week after week after week. Remember team free will? Despite everything, we knew our characters would eventually prevail doing it their way.
Somewhere along the line, it all changed. We often forgot what they were fighting for. Sam and Dean spent so much time in the later seasons hunting for the magical macguffins that meant everything to defeat that latest threat that they left a lot of collateral damage in their wake. Their decisions became more about saving each other instead of the world. Dean sacrificed closing the gates of Hell for Sam at the end of season 8, but it felt like a selfish act. If it was anyone else but Sam, he probably would have allowed it. Wouldn’t have closing the gates of Hell benefitted the world more? Then it backfired anyway and season nine led to more tragic errors. Look at poor Kevin Tran. Everything the Winchesters did resulted in harm to Kevin. Was it intentional? No. But it happened because they self absorbed in their personal mission. Ditto for Charlie, their practical kid sister. She was murdered because Sam was obsessively chasing down a solution to save Dean? The cavalcade of bodies was huge and what was it for? Sam and Dean ended up deciding what that greater good was with often poor judgement. That moral high ground that made these characters what they were was forgotten.
Now, I get that these are flawed characters and they make errors. The sacrifices that Sam and Dean made for each other were supposed to come with consequences. But did they really learn from it? That’s where I think the series failed. We don’t know. In the Kripke era, a lot of the stories, despite their sometimes horrific nature, had a lot of heart in them. Sam and Dean took time to connect with the victims of the week, relate to their humanity. They felt that pain. By the end, there was barely any connection. They fought monsters with basic ease and then went home to have brotherly chats. Castiel had more connection with people in his stories than the Winchesters did. So did Garth come to think of it. And Jody, and Donna and Jack…. I don’t mind supporting characters growing and joining the mission. It adds richness to the story. But if often came at expense of the main characters, who were the main reason people watched every week.
This moral decline and wayward focus of Sam and Dean was especially vivid with Jack. Sam and Dean were all about family and always have been. This was especially stressed in season three with Bobby’s “Family don’t end with blood.” They were always loyal, no matter what, to those who mattered to them. So when they kept wavering with Jack, I couldn’t fathom the creative choice. This is not what Sam and Dean do. Only Castiel stuck with Jack through thick and thin. If anyone could understand the threat of going evil, it would have been Sam and Dean. Their actions against Jack made no sense whatsoever, even with the death of Mary, who was proven to be happy in Heaven again. That wasn’t good enough for Dean though, who spent the entire last season wallowing in his man pain. In the end, it was Jack who remained loyal to Sam and Dean, despite everything they did, making the brothers look like total fools. Jack was the hero at the end of season 15, not Sam and Dean. It was an illustration of how far our heroes had digressed since the beginning and never really learned their lesson.
Poor Character Writing Choices
I spoke about this for years. I still stand by it. In the later years, most of the writing worked to dismantle all that happened through the years without successfully returning to the basic blueprint of what Supernatural was all about, saving people and hunting things.
Chuck, our beloved, dorky, average guy slob just happened to be God. He was endearing, fun, and a fan favorite. No, it didn’t sit right with many fans to watch him turned into an evil villain at the end, turning Sam and Dean’s story into his favorite TV show. Was it illogical? No. Was it fun to watch? No.
Crowley, a real terror in his introduction, was watered down to a bored bureaucrat herding a bunch of dumbasses in his running Hell. Demons used to be feared in the early seasons. Thanks to one Hell lair above ground where they gathered in dumb fashion just to bore their boss, now Hell was just a bad corporation. Yawn. All those bits were designed for scenery chewing and had no real substance to them at all. Even when there were short regime changes like with Lucifer and Asmodeus, the situation turned into a chorus of “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” I see enough of corporate life in my daily job. It ruined the mystique of demons, a principal foe on this show.
Then there was Lucifer. In season five, he terrified us. My gut was in knots every time he was around, whether he was played by Mark Pellegrino or Jared. The decision to have him return as a figment of Sam’s broken mind in season seven was risky but it worked, because he was still characterized correctly. Then when he was reintroduced constantly between season 11 and season 15, he was just an annoying, campy jerk. All that care that was put into Lucifer earlier in the series was trashed for over-the-top behavior and antics. Having him come back to sire Jack was inspired, but that should have been a one time deal. He wore out his welcome and by the end caused more eye rolls than fear with his presence.
I heard the arguments, “the actors wanted time off” and that’s bunk. I’ve seen other shows grow ensembles while still staying true to the main purpose of the series. Arrow managed to build out their cast very well and blend them into the show’s heroic purpose. Supernatural failed to do that, mainly because the writers many times weren’t really interested in building a cohesive story that blended with the overall theme. They wanted to tell sensational stories like bringing Gabriel back because it was a cool twist, despite the fact it was a completely illogical one. Then they disposed of him as easily as he arrived, making even less sense.
Good storytelling happens “full circle”. The idea was to leave us the same way we started, with Sam and Dean together. Sure, that happened, but was there closure in their mission? Did they ultimately make the world a better place? Were their sacrifices worth it? That “full circle” storytelling didn’t really happen. Dean went out swinging and Sam did get that life he always wanted, but he stopped hunting, even though monsters were still out there. We weren’t told if his son carried on the family business. For all we know, he carried on the Winchester name only. While I really loved the finale by itself, it didn’t fit with the entire body of work it was meant to close. Only “Swan Song” actually managed to accomplish that purpose.
Anyway, I could probably turn this essay into a book by citing all the examples flowing in my head. It’s now your turn. Read the article in Collider, read this, and share your take on where Supernatural went wrong for you. Or maybe it never did and you loved it from beginning to end. That’s cool too! I imagine this can spark a lot of debate, so my request is to respect all opinions! There is no right or wrong answer here.
Catch up on all of Alice's Reviews on The Boys and Supernatural, listed on her Writer's Page.