To do a season seven review by now would seem like rubbing salt into old wounds. However, I never did give it a proper sendoff - and I’m so ready to give it a sendoff. I want to look fully forward to season eight without so much as a glance in the rearview mirror. However, pretending season seven wasn’t what is was is like ignoring the giant elephant squashed in a tiny room with you and the cat. So a review there shall be.
I’ve already said a lot about “Supernatural’s” uneven season seven, not just on this site but others as well. One would think that there isn’t much else for me to pick apart. After all, on top of my episode reviews, I’ve made the case that “Supernatural” leaned too much on a formulaic standalone process that resembled most procedurals, I entertained dream theories that didn’t come to be because what we perceived to be clues was really evidence of inconsistent writing, I’ve spelled out in great detail how characterization was a total mess, and I’ve even tackled the ever glaring issue of Sam Winchester’s sideburns. What’s left for me to say?
There’s a few issues that I haven’t dug into deep yet. When looking at individual episodes at a micro level, they weren’t bad. For the most part. Even “Season 7: Time For A Wedding” at first glance wasn’t that awful (my mind has changed since then). The issues happen when putting it all together. There is very little flow from one episode to the next and when these stories that did alright individually are put together, suddenly they’re a random mess. Considering that “Supernatural” in prior seasons (yes, even season six) did such a good to great job with season structure and overall arc, one has to wonder, what in the world happened in season seven?
The Season Seven Intent
One question is did season seven live up to what was truly intended by the writers? After all, the season got off to a very strong start, much stronger than season six. Even though there were a string of very weak to just plain bad episodes from episode three until episode 8 - “Slash Fiction” being the lone standout - most of the season’s momentum was truly lost in the second half. Fears that fans started to have in the first half of the season hit reality. There was no plan, or any plan that may have existed was abandoned. It was all random.
This show for so long was heavily bogged down with sweeping mytharcs and bombastic drama, I understand the attraction from a writer’s standpoint to go back to basics, doing MOTW cases and standalone stories that they were never able to do before because of the series structure. I know how many fans were ready to go back to the basics of season one, when it was just two guys and the open road. Heck, several demanded it under no uncertain terms.
When season seven was unveiled at Comic-Con last year, only Ben Edlund offered some hints about what to expect. “They’re going to have a tough year, Sam and Dean, like they always do. We’re really looking at, how have they been operating all these years, what have their tools been, what have their methods been, how can we take those things and make them difficult for them to use and they have to learn new tricks. They have to evolve too. This season is about challenging them as hunters. Previous seasons have often been about challenging them as brothers or as humans or as men. They’re going to have some professional difficulties because the world is going to try and eat them again.”
So, in a sense, that’s exactly what season seven was. Sam and Dean, stripped down to their bare essentials, out of the open road fighting monsters or whatever lurked in the shadows. As I’ve said before, a lot of these stories though lost their appeal when Sam and Dean were shown to be burned out, listless machines bouncing from case to case with no sense of purpose. But there’s other things that didn’t work either.
The Big Bads. The ancient sea creatures. The big mouths. To be honest, these creatures in terms of menacing nature really did look good on paper. In the first half of the season, leading up to “Death’s Door,” they were very well portrayed. They were an unstoppable, looming threat. Come the second half of the season, they lost their luster. I really wasn’t sure what it was about them I didn’t like until Ben Edlund said this at this year’s Comic-Con:
"...It seemed to me like we were moving in the direction of a B-movie premise with the monsters [the Leviathans]. I would say the monsters were actually a wrestling match of things that worked and didn't work, but mythologically speaking they set the ground for other things that I'm very pleased we've got working in our grandfather clock, so to speak."
The B movie premise would exactly be the reason why the leviathan didn’t work. “Supernatural” has always made their monsters believable. Think about it, when the Trickster got too powerful, they made him an angel! The leviathan as the season progressed grew more comical than scary, more tacky than truly diabolical. When their agenda for world conquest preyed on perceived (and heavy handed) weaknesses of the American lifestyle, I actually expected it all to end with creatures in lizard style rubber suits and green makeup emerging from the black goo, followed by Ed Wood stepping out from behind the director’s chair yelling, “Cut!”
The story really is ridiculous if you think about it. Dick Roman conquered through best sellers about how to make money and tapping into the corn syrup supply? That’s...not creepy. It’s not even funny. Aside from Dick Roman, there wasn’t much interaction with the Leviathan week to week, and Dean’s weekly phone conversations with Frank weren’t exactly building tension. Mother of All ended up being more of a threat, and she wasn’t much of a threat.
A case can be made that by the end of the season, the leviathan were disposed of too conveniently, with Sam and Dean stumbling upon a God weapon. Perhaps, but I think at that point the story line just had to end. It wasn’t working, and as Mr. Edlund said they saw the opportunity for the monsters to drive a mythological setup for next season. It’s too bad though, because there was quite a bit of potential there that ended up being wasted just because some liberal writers in a room thought Americans were too fat and rich.
Editing, Pacing, and Tone
In season seven, far more than season six, the editing and pacing of the individual episodes served the technical structure of the story more than the emotional structure. It’s a known fact that in the Sera Gamble era, the scripts became a little more packed. They were shooting more story than what was allowed time wise so several scenes were cut. That’s okay, “The Vampire Diaries” does it. However, “The Vampire Diaries” knows it’s series tone, and often slows it’s story down to deliver the perfect emotional impact at the right times. That takes priority over all. “Supernatural” followed this formula as well in the first six seasons. In season seven though, something changed. In that editing room, the story structure became more important. This would explain several of the editing choices and the inability to slow down the story to play out the emotional elements most of the time.
In prior seasons, the stories and scene layouts played to the strengths of their actors. Jared and Jensen were given opportunities to sell pauses in the action just through nonverbal interaction. Even Misha Collins does this very well, but given the absence of his character for most of the season, his lost opportunities were noticeable. “Death’s Door” was a masterful showcase of this type of storytelling, but when it was all packed into one episode and not spread evenly through the season, that led to the overall uneven feel from episode to episode.
One scene that does stand out for me is Ghost!Bobby’s final farewell in the season finale. After a touching goodbye with Bobby, Dean throws the flask on the fire. We see Dean’s somber look as his face is lit up by the burning away of Bobby, then Sam’s. Next is a close up on Dean’s pained expression as the light fades away, then Sam’s devastated reaction, then they share a glance that speaks volumes about their grief. It all ends as the shot fades over to a somber Castiel on the stairs. Just gorgeous.
Aside from the warehouse scene in “Hello, Cruel World,” I can’t recall any other scenes outside of “Death’s Door” that had such an emotional impact. Total time for that scene? 1 minute, 42 seconds. That amount of time was actually adequate to sell this scene. So, I ask this of other episodes, why was it so hard to work in a one and a half minute allotment for emotional impact? In a few cases, based on comments made at cons and online by the actors and directors, those scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.
Season seven lacked a lot of what I call “Emotional Storytelling 101.” I’m not exactly sure if these choices were intentional, but in comparing episodes in season seven with prior seasons, it’s easy to pinpoint the style change.
Let’s start first with a “Supernatural” classic, the “troubled glare” ending. In “Nightmare,” Dean plays it cool for Sam’s sake, but this is his look as soon as Sam walks away.
Then there’s “Bloodlust,” after Dean has the talk with Sam outside the Impala.
Or how about my all time favorite? Sam in “Mystery Spot” finally getting Dean back after his nearly year long ordeal being stuck in The Trickster’s alternate reality. Here’s the triple whammy:
There’s also the end of “In The Beginning” for you Castiel fans. It’s different from an emotional perspective. It’s frightening and very worrisome. The impact is just as great, and makes for one awesome cliffhanger into the next episode.
“Your brother is headed down a dangerous road Dean and we don’t know where it leads. So stop it...”
“...or we will.”
For the record, that shot on Dean stayed fixed on his horrified look for five seconds.
Here's season seven's contribution, the end of "Season 7: Time For a Wedding." It just doesn't quite have the same punch, does it? Especially when the comment about Dean focusing on his life now went nowhere. It came after a goofy episode in which there were no high stakes that warranted this moment of reflection. It was completely out of place.
Here’s an example of what I called “missed opportunity” all due to editing. There’s Sam’s frustrated talk with Dean at the end “Shut Up, Dr. Phil.” It’s a classic “Supernatural” setup, two brothers having a talk over the Impala. Sam pleads with Dean to unload on him. Dean won’t. Sam is left very frustrated.
Why didn’t this scene work? The pacing. The camera went back and forth between Dean and Sam in a mostly choppy fashion 19 times in the 1 minute 23 seconds this interaction took place. Very little time was spent on showing each brother’s reaction to the conversation, and there was little variation in the shots. It was very distracting. Sam was also given only three seconds to work out a completely frustrated reaction, which was cut off before it was truly completed. Trust me, just two seconds more would have spoken volumes here. He wasn’t even shown getting into the car, which is a device often used by this show packed a punch into conversations like this (even last season’s “The Third Man” did that).
In comparison, there’s season three’s “Malleus Maleficarum,” when Dean and Ruby had a conversation about Dean’s fate. This scene too had plenty of back and forth. A lot. However, by the time that Ruby arrived, this scene played out for a little over four minutes. In that time, there was a wider variety of shots, not just back and forth. One shot that this show loves to use is framing both characters, clearly focusing on Ruby in the foreground when she talks, then Dean in the background when it’s his turn - exactly like the scene above for "Survival of The Fittest." There are over 50 cuts in that scene. When Ruby delivers her last comment to Dean and disappears, the focus of Dean is a slow fade away, and lasts almost ten seconds.
That ten seconds was crucial. It’s a beautiful shot of Dean isolated in the parking lot with the Impala nearby, facing a terrible future. It lets the conversation sink in for us and truly shows the impact of Ruby’s terrifying revelation for Dean. It’s an artsy way to go out, and I really felt the shock. That’s coming from an episode that much like “Shut Up, Dr. Phil” wasn’t exactly a great episode all the way around.
Editing wasn’t the only change. Pacing also frequently suffered. For another very interesting comparison, we don’t have to go any farther than season six’s “Unforgiven.” When matched up with season seven’s “The Born-Again Identity,” the contrasts are fascinating. Both told some rather devastating stories about Sam, but given that “The Born-Again Identity” dealt with Sam’s very long time coming mental breakdown, one would think that it would be far more gripping than the trauma he experienced remembering his vicious acts while soulless in “Unforgiven.” Somehow though, “Unforgiven” ended up being the far more emotional story.
“Unforgiven” for one focused clearly on Sam’s story. The way they slowly unfolded the mystery, taking time to fully show Sam’s traumatized reactions each time he remembered the past, working Jared’s strengths to sell the story without words, this is a great example of ideal pacing selling the story. I’m completely sucked in, feeling every bit of Sam’s gentle unraveling, drawn to tears at the end as he collapses and fades into traumatic memories of Hell.
“The Born-Again Identity” became an exercise in what I often refer to as “short attention span theater.” Too much was crammed into the story, and because it tried to do to much, it didn’t have any time to deliver emotional impact for Sam, Dean or Castiel’s story. Not to mention, the brothers for the most part weren’t separated in “Unforgiven.” Dean was there keeping a watchful eye with deep concern. Aside from the one deep brotherly emotional scene in the beginning of “The Born-Again Identity” and the very rushed ending, the brothers were apart the entire time and never maintained any sort of contact. The rushed ending (ending with Meg) also ruined Sam's "troubled glare."
“The Born-Again Identity” fails also on tone. This goes back to my criticisms of characterization that I did in “A Deeper Look at Dean Winchester” and “A Deeper Look at Sam Winchester.” Dean didn’t show a frantic concern for Sam. I don’t expect Dean to continue on his role of overbearing caretaker after all this time, but it really wasn’t that long ago when Dean held vigil at Sam’s side in “The Man Who Knew Too Much” despite the looming threat by Castiel. No matter what’s happening to Sam, he needs to be there. From what we learned about season seven Dean, he’s so fried from the life that he’s just depressed and apathetic now toward everything, including Sam’s welfare. That kills a lot of the tone this show built upon. Even a little concern would have held way more for me than Dean and Castiel having a moment in the parking lot over a coat.
No balance between episodes.
Season one often struggled with balance between episodes. The show was new, forging it’s identity, and some forget that the first half of the season got off to a very rough start. When the show managed though to find it’s balance between MOTW and mytharc midseason, it took off and paved the way for the vastly superior season two. For some reason, season seven never found that balance. Most episodes didn’t blend seamlessly, wildly swinging from one spectrum to another. For example, as enjoyable as “Plucky Pennywhistle’s Magical Menagerie” was in terms of mild humor, it proved to be a standalone that didn’t blend at all with the episode that aired before it, “The Slice Girls” or the episode that aired after it, “Repo Man.” Same for “Party On Garth,” a filler episode that followed the very story intensive “The Born-Again Identity.”
Fans were spoiled by the first five seasons in that we got very good at clue hunting. What was presented in one episode more times than not amounted to something come other episodes. Season six was the first season to fail in this regard, not delivering any kind of payoff to fans for their patience. Most of the clues ended up being red herrings to hide the real drama, Castiel and Crowley conspiring to steal souls from Purgatory.
When a bunch of us about two thirds of the way through the season seven became puzzled with the rough writing and plot threads that didn’t mesh, we tried to connect the dots. We ran a very popular series of articles here speculating Sam was still in Hell, Sam was still in a coma from “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” or Dean was dreaming in a Djinn induced haze. We presented our cases, and they made sense. Of course all our theories had roots in season six, and we probably knew that “Supernatural” going back that far and going “surprise!” might not be a better scenario either. We hoped it all made sense in the end though.
Is Sam Winchester Still In Hell?
Let's Discuss: Another Theory Surrounding Supernatural Seasons 6 and 7
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Sadly, come “The Born-Again Identity,” the truth became clear. It was all random. It was all from in-cohesive writing. There is no prize waiting at the bottom of the box and no sweeping arc other than the boys running from B movie monsters and going through the motions from week to week. Even the third cast member, the Impala, was noticeably (and often painfully) absent. In some ways, that letdown was so severe that it pretty much blew the rest of the season.
Which is Better, Season Six or Season Seven?
What’s most strange to me is that when I did my season six review last summer, I wasn’t very happy with that season either, calling it the worst season of the series. I had very high hopes that season seven would restore “Supernatural” to it’s past glory. After seeing the finished product, I can now profess, I liked season six better. I’m ready to call season seven as “Supernatural’s” worst.
Why? Sure the overall arc for both seasons was a total mess, season six missed some big opportunities as well, most notably with the Campbell family, and both seasons did the character of Castiel a gross disservice. But season six stuck to the one element that defines this show. They kept the brotherly bond in tact. Mostly. I even saw more brotherly bond with soulless Sam than I did with the brothers all this season.
For those still not convinced, let’s look at the episodes. When I examine the episode lists for both seasons, I find myself fondly smiling over far more season six titles than season seven. “Clap Your Hands If You Believe” and “The French Mistake” are not only two of my all time favorites, but my family’s as well. For reasons that some might find unfathomable, I absolutely love “Live Free and Twi-Hard” and “Unforgiven.” There was just a certain shocking drama and emotional quality in both Dean and Sam in those episodes that to this day push my heart to the brink. And who can’t smile over “Frontierland?” Also me and my daughter to this day snicker anytime we hear Jefferson Starship at the store. Yes, that little joke in “Mommy Dearest” will live forever, just like Asia’s “Heat of The Moment.” And in terms of storytelling and cinematic quality, one of the strongest episodes ever done on “Supernatural” is Ben Edlund’s “The Man Who Would Be King.”
When looking back at season seven, only one episode evokes a strong response in me. “Hello, Cruel World.” Don’t get me wrong, “Death’s Door” is a masterpiece, but it hurts. It’s not something I can watch over and over again and Bobby’s death so far has been proven to be nothing but senseless, making it hurt worse. There weren’t even any really great comedy episodes this season compared to others. I know, it’s hard to top “The French Mistake” but still, each season left it’s mark in this area - “Changing Channels,” “It’s A Terrible Life, “Tall Tales” for example - and “Plucky Pennywhistle’s Magical Menagerie” just didn’t live up to its predecessors.
“Supernatural” stands apart from other shows and has gained its following because it isn’t a formulaic and normal show. Each week they mixed it up and it all added up to something. The episodes were just the ideal blend of humor, action, drama, angst, tension, mythology, and you just didn’t know what to expect each week. Once season six and season seven lost that balance, the show lost at least a portion of its luster, it not a major chunk. By the end of season seven, I didn’t recognize this show anymore.
It’s Not All Bad
It’s not all bad though. The way I talk of season seven often times, you’d think I’m making it sound like it was 23 episodes of “Bugs.” That’s obviously not true and there are many fans that were happy with the season and liked the standalone concept. Ben Edlund continued to fire on all cylinders with his scripts, and new writer Robbie Thompson proved to be an excellent addition to the staff, giving us three really great action oriented episodes that were a massive treat to watch, yet they also managed to stay true to the characters. The season finale also set the show back on track, setting up some amazing possibilities for the season to come.
From the technical aspects, “Supernatural” remains very strong. The production quality is still top notch. The direction, the lighting, the sound, the set decoration, the visual and special effects, etc. “There Will Be Blood” was a first class exhibit of cinematography. When looking at how shots were framed in the first three seasons and the way they are now, it’s just amazing how sophisticated the technical elements of this show have gotten.
Perhaps it’s unrealistic for a fan to expect crazy like “Changing Channels” and “The French Mistake” when a series hits season seven. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to think that the brothers still want to save the world with conviction after all this time. It becomes a draining job, just like real life. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to hope that after five seasons of fluid writing, the writers still had it them to keep the momentum going and deliver something spectacular.
No doubt, fan expectations are big. This fandom has taken so many different directions, the writers have to write for themselves as opposed to pleasing fans, because there’s no pleasing all fans. But season seven was a drastic departure from everything that made this show what it was. It moved away from the core vision and tried to be something else. Trying something new is good. Starting a new chapter is often necessary. But the show still has to be recognizable to it’s base and I think in this season the show strayed too far. That doesn’t mean of course that people weren’t entertained, but I can see why it was often disappointing for the long time faithful.
I just don’t see myself re-watching a lot of “Supernatural” season seven, putting it on the shelf for dust to collect next to my “Smallville” season 8. The season may have not worked for me, but I have very big hopes for season eight now that I’ve gotten the pitch. There is a new creative energy and focus, and even Jensen and Jared are very happy with the changes. This gives me hope, and season eight gets the benefit of the doubt from me.
Goodbye season seven. If I’m ever feeling nostalgic for campy horror movies blended with cop procedurals, I’ll be sure to give you another look. I’m now proclaiming the door on season seven closed.