I struggled with the review this week for two reasons. First, it’s hard to come in and do a review when the ones before mine seemed to nail the intent and deeper elements of the episode very well. Kudos to Nightsky, FarAwayEyes and Nate Winchester for their well done analysis. Second, I’ve been staring at a mostly empty page all week, trying to muster more than my one word review that summed up the whole episode for me.
Glass Half Full
I’m not going to call “Stranger in a Strange Land” a total waste, but for a season premiere it sure contained a lot of filler. I’ve tried to get past that one word review with a variety of strategies, like a “glass half full” approach. That instantly took me to the tall and freakish one, our darling Sammy, who is now sporting one very hot beard. Jared was donning that same beard at Comic Con when filming started, so I was already alerted to this change in facial grooming. That didn’t make it any less enjoyable to see.
I liked this version of Sam’s struggle without Dean this time. We’ve seen a whole spectrum of him without his brother through the years and it’s come with mixed results. There’s his drunken stupor and Ruby manipulation in season four, his seeking refuge in a normal life with a woman and a damn dog in season eight, and his vigilant search in season ten alone for Demon Dean which was about as fun as watching paint dry.
I like that he’s taking the role of leader this time instead of withdrawing, even if it’s without vigor. He’s barely getting by, avoiding such necessities as food and sleep. Yeah, I’ve been there a few times myself. Sam’s hopelessness in the situation, practically going through the motions, is exactly what we should expect. After all, Sam too has been possessed by an archangel and he knows how much that can f*** up a human being. Knowing what Dean is going through has taken away any shred of hope he might have had left. Given how things went for him at the end of last season, all hope had pretty much left the building. This was just another kick to that otherwise broken back.
It is very interesting though that Nick has become part of this equation. The scene between him and Sam was the only scene that caught my attention from beginning to end. After all, Nick too shares that terror of archangel possession and is the one person in proximity that knows exactly how Sam feels. Those feelings of being possessed by Lucifer, both through Dean and Nick, have resurfaced and Sam is terrified. That terror was very clear when he checked in on Nick. Sharing the face of his long time tormentor doesn’t help either. He doesn’t want to share stories with Nick or bond over their frightening ordeal. He can’t deal with any of that now. He can’t be reminded of the intense pain that Dean is experiencing right now. He can’t be reminded of his own torture, because he is needed right now.
My biggest nitpick with Sam the entire series is how he’s become the “teflon” character that can take any unimaginable horror that has come his way. He just keeps on going. They haven’t taken any chunk of time to truly explore Sam’s chinks in the armor, his vulnerabilities and weaknesses behind the tough exterior. This episode did just that and it’s about time. It was one of those “show, don’t tell” moments that I have been hampering this show for not doing enough of. I hope that they continue with this exploration of a truly broken man in a consistent way, because it’s long overdue. Anything less would be a total injustice to his character.
I also adored Jack in this and felt his struggle. Alex is killing it with his delivery. Despite assurances from everyone, Jack still feels lost and alone. I adore that he still tried, even though an ass whooping was the obvious outcome. I must ask though, why didn’t he get one of those convenient Castiel healings in the end?
Glass Half Empty
The rest, well, it was pretty much crap. That’s where I waffle between total apathy and being completely pissed off. When the part I objected to the least was the retcon that an archangel blade doesn’t kill the host (then why does an angel blade?) then you know the quality was lacking quite a bit.
The plotting in general was complete dung. That happens when your story is super thin. Michael wanders around talking to creatures in a nice suit, Check. Castiel finds himself in a situation caused by his own dumbassery. Check. Sam goes all badass on foolish and cartoonish demons using a plan we’ve seen a thousand times over. Check. Then the driver of all things, Sam and his team looking tirelessly for Dean!Michael, happening off camera for the last three weeks, gets easily resolved in the end thanks to one quick call from Sister Jo. Lazy writing strikes again.
I’m still sick over what they’ve done to poor Castiel over time. This is a new low. He is a fearless warrior that can take on numerous demons at once. How could he get caught so easily and have no form of pre-caution? Is this meant to say that losing Dean has made him stupid? Does anyone remember how stupid demons have been portrayed over the several seasons? No one out stupids demons. All Sam needed to do was come in with a rudimentary plan to fix it all. It’s hard to accept high stakes of a scenario with such a lazy setup.
Then there’s Dean!Michael. Sure, Jensen did a great job and it’s great to see him stretching himself as an actor, but talk about a massive letdown to a lot of hype. He was hardly on the screen at all and didn’t do much. For an almighty angel, he talks a lot. So the big twist is Michael is making a deal with vampires? Oh boy, that gets me so…nope, got nothing. That generated about as much excitement as dry and cold toast. Plus, weren't just about all the vampires extinguished by the British Men of Letters in season 12? Oh right, continuity is a folly now.
Despite the acceptable direction in the story, good storytelling is not taking 42 minutes to show a slow, logical progression and all our characters in one grand mope. It requires engaging the viewer through plots that move forward, delivery that involves a level of energy at least some of the time, multiple stories that are woven together with complexity, and are sometimes nerve wracking and unpredictable. My imagination ran way too fast for this episode.
I come into a season opener looking for higher stakes, a world where death and loss still means something, characters are showing a little spark or passion in their actions, dialogue that entertains and gets me excited about a character’s season long arc, and an unfolding plot that sets a strong pathway for the season. This did none of that. They didn’t move very far forward from the previous episode and now I have little to no interest in what’s to come.
The Red Headed Monster
Wow, my counterpart needs to chill a bit. After watching the season opener, I felt nothing but sympathy for writer Andrew Dabb. Wait, is that the sound of you laughing?
Writing about “Supernatural” has become a tremendous chore. Words used to flow to the page easily for me, inspired by all the possibilities and plot bunnies that seemed to scamper everywhere. Not anymore. I struggle with basic reviews and finding something thoughtful to say. It's all due to that one key word, inspiration. That's what has been missing in a good number of “Supernatural” scripts recently. The acting is still top notch but each year the actors are given less and less to work with. “Stranger in a Strange Land” hit a new low in apathy in the writing.
How is that sympathetic? Andrew Dabb has clearly lost any spark that he once had as a writer. He’s writing generally serviceable scripts which are unacceptable when you’re the writer in charge of writing the big episodes, aka the season opener, mid-season finale, and season closer. These episodes are supposed to generate fan excitement and buzz. A low energy character study is perfectly fine, in episode 5 or 15. When you are trying to get your fanbase immersed in the new season, that’s the exact time NOT to slow things down to crawl.
I get it from Dabb’s point of view. If it’s a chore for me to review “Supernatural,” can you imagine what it’s like for a writer that has been there since season four and has seen nothing but the Sam and Dean story retread over and over? When attention to detail and continuity went out the window long ago? When season long arcs were fluid and coherent and now they’re not? When there was some actual bounce and humor to the show?
When you hit that feeling that there are no more places to go in the story and it’s no longer worth trying to be unpredictable and edgy, all that’s left is soapy character studies. What we’re seeing is a total lack of inspiration that robs characters of any true depth and often results in shallow and insipid plotting. Case in point, Castiel, Mary Winchester and the new Bobby. Every ounce of this episode oozes of his agony in having to write yet another season opener. It’s very clear, he’s doing all he can just to get by. He’s phoning it in.
I can sense we’re coming onto an endgame for “Supernatural.” Just like poor Sam, it’s tired, weary, and going through the motions just to exist. I’m sticking it out because I’d like to see it through to the end, as are many fans. But I don’t get much entertainment from this anymore. I strongly get the sense that Robert Singer and Andrew Dabb are feeling the same way. Somewhere along with the line this stopped being fun and it’s hard to find that smile again when you’re so weary. So yeah, we’re all kind of stuck in a rut, waiting for it to all be over.
After watching “Stranger in a Strange Land,” it felt like that even with a shortened season, the writers still have plenty of air time to fill and they don’t know what to do with it. Now I think twenty episodes is way too much. So far it seems like this story can be closed out in six. Every opener has found at least some way to ratchet up the tension, complicate the plot, raise the stakes…anything. When soap opera elements take total control over your horror action show, well, they might as well change the name to “As the Impala Turns.” That’s what it felt like I was watching.
Of course I reserve the right to recant this sentiment if next week proves to be a barn burner, but I’m not holding my breath!
Overall grade, a B+ in character study, a D for a season opener. If this is the pace for the next 19 episodes, this is going to be a long season.