Saturday, October 4, 2014

Supernatural Season 9 Play-by-Play and Review (Part 1)

I’ve decided to wade through the quagmire of season 9 of Supernatural. I am not sure if this is a mistake anymore, I can’t stop. Having finished season 8 and regaining a mixed sense of familiarity, enough of a detachment to try to ignore the bad things in the newer seasons and enough interest in the end of that season, I have decided to stumble on. This review will be much like my season 8 review; going step by step through the storyline and making comments and observations as I go. Spoilers for the season, as you can imagine and also for previous seasons. If you want to read my season 8 review you can do so here.

Okay, let’s take a look at what Sam, Dean and their rag-tag crew of survivors are up to this season. (Part 1 of 2)

The season 8 finale left me pretty interested; Metatron had been evil all along, had killed Naomi and had been using Castiel to cast a spell, not shut the gates of heaven and start a recovery process. Sam was trying to shut the gates of hell, becoming sicker and sicker. His final task was to cure a demon and he had Crowley right on the cusp before Naomi told Dean that Sam would die if he completed the trials. Dean rushed to Sam’s aid, similar to the season four finale, and this time got to him before he could follow through. As Sam decides not to go through with the final task, both brothers assuming that this will stop his imminent death, he takes a turn for the worse. Outside, the brothers watch fireballs falling from the sky; falling angels. As Castiel wakes up in a forest human, Sam falls into unconsciousness.

Given this great season finale, it’s a shame how lacklustre the season nine opener is. Sam is talking to Dean in the Impala when Dean tells him that this is not real, that they are in Sam’s head and that he is dying. We discover that Sam is in a coma in hospital and the doctors have told Dean there is nothing they can do. Contrary to what both brothers believed, not completing the trials did not reverse whatever they were doing to Sam. In desperation, Dean sends out an open prayer to all angels who may be able to hear and get to him.

In the meantime, Castiel is strugglingly with his human life and wants to help his fallen angel brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, most are out hunting him or are terrified and resorting to extreme measures to survive. Many are circling for appropriate vessels.

As we have previously discovered, angels need permission to inhabit a vessel, they cannot possess the way that demons do. We learn in this episode that angels can also possess other angels, although we don’t know how this works exactly.

An angel comes to answer Dean’s plea for help, Ezekiel. He manages to save Dean from other angels who have come to kill him or torture him for information as to Castiel’s whereabouts. Ezekiel offers to heal Sam.

Back in Sam’s head, Sam is arguing with himself about letting go and dying. It’s in some ways similar to the season two opener when Dean is talking with a reaper about his life and letting go, except not as well executed. Sam has manifested the will to fight and live in Dean and the will to rest and let go in Bobby. Fighting with himself, he decides that it is time to move on and greets Death, who tells him that he has come personally as it is an honour to reap someone like Sam Winchester.

Back at the hospital, Dean and Ezekiel come under siege by angels looking for Castiel and responding to Dean’s open prayer. Fighting is going poorly and eventually, Ezekiel explains that he is too weak to save Sam by conventional angelic powers. He tells Dean that it is possible if he possesses Sam that he can heal both Sam and himself, but Dean is convinced that Sam would rather die. As angels need the acceptance of their vessels, Ezekiel suggests that Sam would say yes to Dean, even if not to an angel. Dean agrees and appears in Sam’s mind, interrupting Sam’s chat with Death to talk about being saved. At the last second, once Sam has agreed, Dean changes into Ezekiel and possesses Sam.

Ezekiel and Dean agree that Sam cannot know for now as if Sam knows and rejects Ezekiel then he will not be strong enough and will certainly die.

Once again, the growth that was undertaken in the previous season between the brothers basically re-sets. Dean is lying to Sam despite a fresh new honesty developing last season and the tension begins to ramp again. The anti-climax of closing the gates to hell is not lost on this viewer, who begins to feel that the whole previous season was a waste of time. While Sam being possessed by an angel is interesting, as is making the angels a new ultimate evil, it also seems cheap to again deny Sam personhood and autonomy. Maybe Dean should lose that for a change.

As the season continues a few critical things take place;
  • Sam continues to get stronger and better with Ezekiel healing him from the inside.
  • Ezekiel uses his angelic powers to help Dean to hunt the angels after Castiel.
  • Crowley is locked up in the torture room of the bunker the brothers are staying in at the Men of Letters headquarters.
  • Abaddon is re-born in the same form as before, indicating that this is possible but also that the Knights of Hell have more powers than we previously might have guessed.

The most interesting part of the story is really Castiel’s struggle with being a human being and what that means. He did not understand so much of the human world before and watching him starve, need to sleep, be sexually attracted to people, need to work and feel cold are very interesting developments for his character and his future relationships with the other characters. The army of fallen angels amassing to capture him however is enormous and they are using tactics to trick people into becoming vessels and seem to want to take over humanity.

On the other side of the playground Abaddon is also amassing an army to try to take over hell and control humanity, although he needs Crowley’s head to do it. There seems to be no safe space for the Winchesters or anyone in their lives.

Interestingly, rogue Reapers are becoming a new arm to the mythology of the show and there seem to be a number of them. With their skills, finding Castiel will become a lot easier for the fallen angels, but Ezekiel won’t stay with Sam if Castiel is around, which makes for some interesting ‘family’ dynamics and choices.

Sam is also once again the punching bag of the show this season it seems. When did that start? It’s getting difficult to remember. It seemed okay when it was a one off bad decision with Ruby and opening the hell pit and letting Lucifer out. I thought he paid everyone back for that with his final sacrifice in season five, pulling Michael and Lucifer into the pit with him. From that point on he has continued to do nothing but blame himself or have cause to blame himself. He’s done the soulless routine and done bad things, he’s tried to make up for it but always thinks he’s let someone down and needs to redeem himself, he just can’t catch a break even when it seems like he has. In one recent episode a young female hunter tells him that he is the reason her parents died because he let Lucifer out of the pit. Yeah, in case we forgot that Sam is terrible and needs to be punched some more.

Also, the weird hang up the show has on women has continued, though I doubt that surprises anyone, with many being either overtly sexual one offs or dying. The angels try not to take them as vessels, you know, because they are so weak. If they do successfully take them as vessels they are usually the nastiest angels. Oh, and by the way, if anyone sleeps with a woman; she’s usually evil. Yeah, and apparently it’s the FANS that don’t like the women. Hm. I’m pretty sure I am not the one writing all of that into the plot. It’s actually off-putting when watching the show and seems blatantly obvious.

The season doesn’t really pick up from that point on as we get a couple of fluffier episodes. The fourth of the season involves Felicia Day’s Charlie and the Wizard of Oz. It seems like I should like that episode but it is seriously one of the worst I have seen of Supernatural in a long time. Poorly scripted, acted and executed, the Winchesters bumble around fighting the wicked witch and Charlie ends up pals with Dorothy and off to go on quests in Oz. Just when we thought we might actually see some personhood and development, she leaves in a tacky ‘girl-power’ moment.

The fifth involves Dean doing a Vulcan Mind Meld with a dog and produces some very mild laughs. The best part of the episode is the clips show at the beginning of funny parts from older episodes.

I have to say; episodes 7 and 8 came as a bit of a shock to a fan of the old series, mainly because they had the flavour of the earlier seasons. They have a spooky feel and some genuine scare factors that have their roots in season two. They also focus more on traditional Supernatural freaks-of-the-week; a malevolent spirit and a goddess. The angel and Christian arc can be interesting but I definitely think most of it has outlived its value. Going back to stories about the brothers, the supernatural and the dark is a smarter move and personally something that I prefer from the series. I definitely also appreciated that there was some more back-story included with a young Dean staying at a boarding house for troubled boys. It brought back the intrigue of the past and Sam and Dean's childhood, not to mention genuine emotion from both brothers in what was given up and why. The humour and the gore also hit most of the right notes in the two episodes.

In perfect contradiction to what I have said above though, episodes 9 and 10 raised the stakes and the bar on the season arc and the mythos of the show. I’m convinced that this show just needs tighter writing and that fewer episodes would probably be a great thing – there would be no ridiculous filler in there because every second would be precious in forwarding the season arc, relationships and the various monsters fans still crave that have been sorely lacking.

We discover that Ezekiel is not who he says he is and is in fact the angel Gadreel. Gadreel is the angelic guard who allowed Lucifer disguised as a serpent to enter the Garden of Eden and he was punished and locked away as God thought it was partially his fault that God had to cast humanity into sin and suffering. Desperate for a second chance, Gadreel has been hiding out in Sam’s body avoiding detection and biding his time before the other angels realise that even those in the dungeons were cast out of heaven.

Funnily, Gadreel stumbles upon Metatron who tells him that he was wrong to cast the angels out… mainly because he’s lonely and has realised how big and empty Heaven is without the angels there. His beaut new plan is to recreate Heaven after the fashion that he believes God intended and there he would rule over a few selected angels. He asks Gadreel to be his second in command.

Meanwhile, the angels on Earth have divided into waring factions; each supporting a different ruler in Heaven once they return. This turns into en masse blood shed and attracts the attention of both the Winchesters and Castiel, who has been in hiding. Castiel is captured by Malakay’s faction and manages to escape when one of Malakay’s henchmen releases him in the belief that Castiel is still in contact with Metatron and can get him back into Heaven. Castiel slit’s his throat and takes his grace, thus becoming an angel again. There’s clearly a lot more to this story than initially meets the eye. With any luck this will be elaborated on in the future, but like many other plot threads in this show, might be left to fall.

Kevin mentions to Dean that there are portions of the Angel Tablet that he is really struggling to decipher; like Metatron never intended them to be read. Dean asks for his help in uncovering a spell that would stop an angel from being able to listen in to a conversation with the vessel.

Gadreel contacts Metatron and agrees to be his second in command; a hero of the new Heaven. Metatron, somewhat predictably, asks for a show of loyalty and gives Gadreel a name of a person that he has to kill.

Castiel learns that the angel Ezekiel was killed in the fall, along with many other angels. He calls Dean to tell him that whoever the angel is inside Sam, it's not Ezekiel.

Back at the bunker, Dean and Kevin paint sigils to try to talk to Sam without Gadreel listening in. Dean tells Kevin that he can't tell him what is going on but to trust him. When Sam gets home Dean takes him to the bunker, activates the sigil and tells Sam what is going on. Unfortunately for Dean, it's not actually Sam he's talking to; it's Gadreel who has overheard Dean's plan and has broken the sigil ahead of time. He walks over to Kevin and kills him; placing the yellow slip of paper Metatron gave him on Kevin's chest with his name on it.

The death of Kevin Tran was actually profoundly distressing and surprising. Even though I think I read a spoiler for it, I was still somehow unprepared for it. It happened so quickly and so unpredictably. The viewer is left feeling completely overwhelmed and empty at the end of the episode as Dean cries over Kevin's body and Sam, hijacked by Gadreel casually leaves with the Tablets and the Impala.

Episode ten opens with Dean burning Kevin and losing his mind in grief for both his dead friend and his missing brother. He calls Castiel finally, and tells him the whole story. Castiel is distraught that Dean has done what he has done but assures Dean that he did what he felt was necessary and that his intention was good; the intent is always important.

Castiel and Dean resort to using Crowley and his methods to try to get through to Sam and warn him that he is possessed and therefore, have him eject Gadreel. They take Crowley to find information about where Gadreel has gone. Turns out one death was not enough for Metatron, he is continuing to give Gadreel new names of people to take out of play. After he takes Kevin he takes his torturer from his heavenly prison cell. He tells Metatron that though that was easy, Kevin was not. Metatron explained, as one might predict, that Kevin was the last prophet after Metatron stopped the trigger that activated the next prophet when one dies. Therefore, he was the last one who could read the word of God aside from Metatron and the last person who could see that Metatron didn't write everything in the texts the way God had intended, although he does not tell Gadreel this. The next name on his list ends up being Gadreel’s best friend from his prison, and after some inner conflict, decides that he has to pay the price for his second shot and kills him.

When Dean confronts Gadreel he is easily overwhelmed, but is not expecting a fully angelic Castiel who manages to knock him out for transport. Dean and Castiel wake Gadreel up in a warehouse where they tell him that Crowley will work on him in order to obtain information and save Sam. Gadreel doesn't seem too phased by this, saying that Sam is safely locked away in a dream working a case with Dean, that he is buried deep and will not be able to be found. Castiel is confounded by not being able to recognise Gadreel on sight and Crowley's first discovery is the angels name. Castiel is enraged when he discovers that this is the famed Gadreel who brought about sin and corruption; Crowley thinking that he is actually a celebrity.

It becomes clear after some time that Crowley's methods are not working fast enough and that perhaps they never will. Dean asks Castiel to posses Sam too, but Castiel reiterates that an angel must be invited in. Crowley offers to posses Sam and free him in return for his own freedom. Although Castiel protests, Dean agrees to the bargain and Castiel can't really blame him. The imagery of the scene is actually some of the best in the season and in some respects of the series. Watching the brothers, their friend, their enemy, a mix of angelic and demonic forces mingling together illustrates just how different this show is now in its ninth season.

Dean tells Crowley the code word to use when he's in there to convince Sam that he is real and to trust his information. Gadreel promises to find and destroy Crowley within Sam's mind. Luckily for Crowley, he finds Sam pretty quickly and convinces him that the situation is real. Unfortunately, Gadreel soon finds them and attempts to destroy them both. Sam successfully expels him and he returns to his previous vessel - played by Tahmoh Penikett - again, which is exciting. Jared's performance as Gadreel has been so amazing and so much of it harkens the mannerisms and temperament established by Tahmoh's portrayal. It's great to have him back to see the character into the next phase.

Crowley exists Sam, keeping up his end of the bargain and Castiel says that he can slowly heal the damage left in Sam. Unfortunately, at this exact moment Abaddon arrives to claim Crowley. The boys and Castiel leave, promising Crowley that if they see him again all bets are off even though he has helped them and is now buying them time to get away - somehow I doubt this will be the case Crowley is far too interesting a character and his interactions with Sam, Dean and Castiel are too well played for the show writers and runners to stop this continuing well past its used by date. As with many things on this show unfortunately.

Crowley throws down the gauntlet to Abaddon for the rulership of the underworld. A campaign of sorts that is also clearly a bit of fan service and encouragement to participate. Not sure how it will translate onto screen.

Sam and Dean have a confrontation where, tired and almost completely disengaged, Sam says that Dean lied again and that he had been ready to die. Dean, dejected but for once owning the fact that he didn't really have the right to do what he did, says that he is going after Gadreel to avenge Kevin and this time, he is going alone. In a complete role reversal from the first few seasons, it is now Dean echoing Sam's sentiment that everyone around him or close to him dies and that he is cursed to live through that. Sam tells him to go but tries also to tell him that his reasoning is wrong even though the outcome is the same.

In many respects this scene is one of the most important. Predictably it means that the brothers will be split again which it seems the show runners cannot get away from even though it has been done to death. It's like they cannot conceive of any other, more interesting source of conflict and storytelling. However, if done differently, this could mean that we get to see some relationship development between Castiel and Sam. This is unlikely though, as the writers have hitched their wagon to the Castiel and Dean fans - which is fine - but a little limited. If the relationship between Dean and Castiel wasn't given enough scope in the first place then it would never have become such an asset to the show. Let's give Sam a chance to develop some meaningful relationships please? I feel like I am beating a dead horse here.

Tune into (read!) the next instalment to find out what happens in the second half of season 9 of Supernatural!

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