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Sunday 9 February 2014

Supernatural Season 7: Why would you even do that?

It's no secret that I watch some seriously terrible shit. But while I enjoy a so-bad-it's-good movie as much as the next guy, I can't sustain that kind of interest for an entire TV series. Not unless Tommy Wiseau finally gets funding for his sitcom, that is.

Supernatural is my one exception to the "no awful television" rule, because it's in the unique position of being simultaneously terrible and brilliant. Its attitude to women (or anyone who isn't a straight white man) is atrocious, its episodic storylines are quite often shitty or ridiculous to the point of offensiveness, and it relies heavily on a very formulaic storyline cycle -- although as I'll explain later, its formulaic nature is actually one of its greatest strengths. But somehow, two years after abandoning it at the season 6 finale ("CASTIEL DID WHAT!?") I found myself crawling back to this godawful show, masochistically enthralled once again. 23 episodes in less than a month, you guys. Twenty-three episodes.
I suspect I have a pretty similar attitude to many Supernatural fans, in that I'm fully aware of the show's painfully obvious flaws, and yet keep coming back for more. Ordinarily I'm quite picky about TV shows, and will drop them as soon as they look like they've jumped the shark. But Supernatural is so goddamn addictive (not to mention un-shark-jumpable) that I went so far as to avoid spoilers for the two years I wasn't watching, on the realistic assumption that I'd eventually be lured back into the fold. And lo, I was.
For the past few weeks I've been watching and live-tweeting season 7, mostly to responses like "Why are you doing this to yourself?" and "You sound like an alcoholic falling off the wagon." Well, at least I'm not alone in that regard. Over the years I've seen plenty of people do exactly the same thing: drop Supernatural, only to succumb to its dubious charms after months or years away. My condolences, friends. I've often noticed it being referred to as the unpleasant ex-boyfriend of fandom: you know it's terrible and will end up hurting you all over again, but you just can't help yourself. This is the kind of gallows humour that bubbles to the top of your brain after watching 23 consecutive episodes of Sam and Dean repeating the same conversation over and over again, defeating yet another an implausible villain with some kind of maguffin device, and violently murdering several evil sexy women. So, why the hell did I put myself through it all over again? Why do any of us do it?
Season 7 was definitely the worst season so far, and yet I was weirdly captivated. By the time I reached the end, I was desperate to continue. Morbid fascination had struck again. But really, how can you resist a show that features all these elements over the course of just one season?
  • The main characters' father-figure dying, becoming a ghost, and then haunting a hip flask. (And eventually going on to possess the body of a motel maid.)
  • The main antagonists being an evil corporate network of flesh-eating monsters who can only be killed using borax (!!!), and who plan to take over the USA by using modified high-fructose corn syrup to turn everyone into zombies.
  • One of the main characters dying, coming back to life as an amnesiac, getting married to the woman who fished him out of a river, then regaining his memories, moving into a mental institution, and finally deciding that he wants to dedicate his life to "watching the bees". This character is an angel. We don't hear anything about his wife after the first time she's mentioned on the show.
  • An episode that involves not only evil clowns and a vampire octopus, but a unicorn that farts rainbows.
  • A supervillain whose name is literally Dick, meaning that there are actual canonical lines like "The rise of Dick" and "Dick is coming."

Women and Supernatural

This may sound like an odd attitude to have, but as someone who is highly critical of sexism on TV, I find Supernatural strangely relaxing to watch. The reason why I write so much about the role of female characters in stuff like Doctor Who and Sherlock (and to a lesser extent, Teen Wolf) is because there are still so many people labouring under the baffling misapprehension that those shows are feminist masterpieces. Steven Moffat's followers are particularly depressing to me, because there seems to be a large number of self-proclaimed feminists who think that both Sherlock and recent seasons of Doctor Who are a high bar for female representation on TV. I've lost count of the number of well-meaning questions I've answered from people who still need a nudge to notice that beneath the shiny veneer of "strong female characters" in Sherlock, lies a roiling cesspool of misogyny.
By comparison, any fool who watches SPN should be able to tell within minutes that this show is a disaster zone. If the stereotypical gender roles (villain, victim, sex object, or tragic corpse) don't tip you off, then the huge pile of female corpses probably will. LGBT characters and people of colour barely fare any better, although they suffer more through sheer exclusion. The fact that the central characters are all white mean mean that all other demographics have to be represented in the disposable roles of single-episode monster, love interest, victim, or villain. And this all comes across even worse than usual in a show like SPN, which by necessity has an enormous body count. The only non-Winchester character who is "safe" is Castiel, because the writers have presumably worked out by now that if he left, so would a significant chunk of the show's audience.

Leviathans, AKA Why the hell would you even do that?

Thanks to my idiotic decision to avoid any and all spoilers for two solid years, I only knew three things about this season: Felicia Day showed up at some point, there was a new character named Kevin, and that this was the Bad Season. And oh boy, was that last judgement 100% accurate.

For the first six seasons, SPN stuck to loosely Biblical and occult themes, which worked out pretty well because it meant they could just recycle a ton of familiar horror/fantasy concepts. The introduction of angels was a gamble, but to my surprise it turned out to be a really interesting development. Leviathans, on the other hand? Not so much.
I do understand why season 7 was like this. The previous two seasons had been so high-stakes that the writers had to go in a different direction, leading to what basically amounted to a season-long version of Buffy's "Doublemeat Palace" episode. The villains were near-unkillable monsters (who inevitably became more and more killable as the season progressed) who planned to turn America into a giant Soylent Green factory. In some ways it's weirdly impressive that the writers decided to stretch this ridiculous plotline out to an entire season, even given the handful of familiar touches like substituting borax for holy water, or having the end-of-season maguffin be a magical ~bone. (A bone that they use to stab Dick, of course. Never let it be said that Supernatural avoids the chance to squeeze in another penis joke.)

The Leviathan-centric parody of corporate America would have worked better if the writers had spent time on it, I think. As it was, we mostly just saw distant appearances from Dick (who was, admittedly, excellent) and a few henchmen. With the ability to make copies of any person's body and memories, the Leviathans should've been the most threatening enemy in the show's history, especially since they had so much mainstream "human" power throughout America. And yet by the final episode, their destruction almost seemed like an afterthought when compared to more interesting details like the rise of Crowley, or Castiel's return to the fold. In that regard the entire season felt very similar to a comedy filler episode, with Sam and Dean easily disposing of an unfeasibly powerful enemy just because they had to move on to next week's storyline.

The road so far.

The CW recently announced that they're going to make a Supernatural spinoff series, which isn't a huge surprise considering the show's longevity. It's going to be set in Chicago, an interesting choice because it instantly removes one of the most important elements of the original show: road trips.

The basic concept of Supernatural ("saving people, hunting things") is interesting enough, but it's not exactly unique. There are multiple modern-day fantasy/horror TV shows running at any given time, and SPN's strength isn't its worldbuilding -- it's Sam and Dean's lifestyle. Relying on the formula of Winchester brothers + motels + Impala road trips + weekly infusions of new monsters to kill, the show develops at such a glacially slow pace that you barely even notice until you're a couple of seasons in, at which point you are terminally hooked. It's pretty unusual for a show to stick to a core cast of just two people, meaning that Sam & Dean's characterisation gets the kind of in-depth treatment that's usually reserved for, well, better television. Obviously when you're watching something like The Good Wife, every character is beautifully complex, but SPN is a show that devoted an entire season to a supervillain who turns people into zombies with genetically engineered fast food. The believability of Sam and Dean's character progression is what keeps everything grounded, in among all those rainbow-farting unicorns and high-fructose corn syrup conspiracies.
SPN's side-characters can often be a little two dimensional, but Sam and Dean's characterisation is perfectly balanced to create one perfect unit. In the first couple of seasons, Dean was immature and douchey, while Sam was reluctant and frustrated by the loss of his old civilian life. But by season 7, Dean seems almost suicidally depressed, while Sam has resigned himself to the inevitability of being a hunter for the rest of his life. One of my favourite developments this season was the way they actually started to acknowledge Dean's alcoholism, although I think they should've taken it a little further.

Manly antiheroes often tend to be heavy drinkers, and it was always kind of hilarious that Dean, who lives on a diet of fast food and liquor, could be played by the inhumanly beautiful Jensen Ackles. This season, they finally began to point out that Dean's constant drinking was less about him being a lonesome cowboy badass, and more about him being an honest-to-god drunk. I loved that he was basically just like, "Why are we even bothering to save the world again? WE DO THIS EVERY FUCKING YEAR." Which he quickly followed up by saying that maybe the world wants to end -- a thinly disguised hint that Dean no longer had much to live for himself. Dean's life is hell, maybe even moreso than Sam's because unlike Sam, he can't even choose not to be a hunter. At least Sam got a few years of practise at being a normal person.
I think the whole "Sam Girl vs. Dean Girl" thing in SPN fandom is kinda legit, because it's very difficult not to take sides during their many feuds. Given the opportunity to hang out with the Winchester brothers in real life (NO THANKS), I'd probably prefer Sam because unlike Dean he reads books, isn't a misogynist, and has a superficial veneer of emotional sensitivity. However, I'm definitely a Dean Girl at heart. As someone who consumes a lot of sci-fi/fantasy/comicbook fiction, I'm heartily tired of watching angsty antihero men slog their way through hours of grim manpain and lonesome whisky drinking. Dean Winchester is my one exception, because somehow, in amongst SPN's tangled mess of sexist storylines and revolving door to the afterlife, he managed to become a wholly convincing and compelling character. He's got it all: daddy issues, a drinking problem, survivor's guilt, the works. He should be just as dull as the zillion other noir action heroes who lurk around in the shadows, killing people in the name of Saving The World. And yet. AND YET.
Taken at face value, Dean is a bloodthirsty, immature alcoholic who lives in his car and is unconsciously obsessed with living up to some imaginary ideal of American masculinity. Meanwhile Sam, the "sensitive one", has a college education (kind of), treats women with a modicum of respect, and is slightly more likely to think before he shoots someone in the head. But within two or three seasons, Dean was by far my favourite. First of all, the show purposefully engineers Sam into situations where he proves himself to have an inner core of total asshole, after which he always springs back to acting like the ~superior brother. Basically, Dean will do terrible things in the name of ~Good, while Sam, convinced that he is doing the right thing, will make a terrible decision that fucks everything up for everyone.

The brothers' personalities are perfectly balanced in that the things that seem superficially true of Dean are actually Sam's underlying personality traits, and vice versa. For example, Dean is impulsive and thoughtles while Sam is more inclined to instigate an actual discussion about ethics, but Dean still has far stronger instincts on a moral and emotional level. And despite his general mistrust and lack of respect for 90% of the population, Dean gets attached to people (Castiel; Bobby; Ellen & Jo) to far a more intense degree. Dean may have grown up alone on the road, but I think Sam is secretly better at living independently.

Dean's feelings towards Castiel will probably get a post all to themselves (SPOILER ALERT: Supernatural turns me into an obnoxious shipper nightmare, because Destiel is written like a canon pairing but almost certainly never will be, UGH) but I had a love/hate with this season because a) NO CASTIEL, but b) Dean's gut-churningly dire emotional state was partly caused by Castiel's betrayal and subsequent death. The former, obviously, was trash garbage (although I'll excuse it, because Misha Collins was busy with his new baby). But the latter was very satisfying to me, because I'd begun to watch Dean's booze intake like a hawk, and he became noticeably less of a drunk once Castiel came back from the dead.
Overall, this was a very strange season. The first two thirds seemed riddled with some of the worst episodes in the show's entire run, and the main Leviathan storyline was very poorly handled. Conceptually, the Leviathans were terrifying, almost to the extent of being worth an entire show unto themselves. But the idea was so poorly executed that by the time we reached the finale, Dick's demise seemed even more inevitable than the previous seasons' Big Boss episodes. It just felt like the writers were getting rid of him in order to move onto bigger and better things -- probably because that's exactly what they were doing.

Like so many seasons before, this one ended on an epic cliffhanger, with Dean and Cas in Purgatory, Kevin kidnapped by demons, and Sam standing around bemusedly in a high-fructose corn syrup laboratory full exploded of monster guts. No wonder I couldn't help but start watching season 8 immediately.

To be continued...

(Season 8 is currently being watched & live-tweeted whenever I can muster the spiritual energy for another dose of nightmare garbage, @hello_tailor.)


  1. SuperDuperChrisCooper10 February 2014 at 02:52

    7 was by far the worst series of Supernatural (I'm currently a few episodes into S9).

    1 & 2 set things up well. Yellow Eyed Demon feels like a very long way back now. How easily would they deal with him now I've often wondered.

    3 had various writer strike problems, but it was good to see that the good guys don't just win. There was a price to pay.

    4 & 5 were the strongest in my eyes. Growing the world to include angels was a big step, and of course Cas is great. I do wonder if it should have ended there.

    6 was a mixed bag, with alphas and that guy from The X-Files. I expected a come down after 5 though.

    7 was just poop. For a long time I was behind my Brother on watching the show, to the tune of a couple of seasons. (S7 SPOILERS) He'd constantly tease me by saying that "Bobby dies". Well what do you know. Gutted, but he couldn't stay around forever (S7 SPOILERS).

    8 felt like a step back in the right direction, and 9 has started decently enough. Looking forward to what you have to say about it!

    I'd never noticed the lack of other races and sexism before really. I was probably too busy gazing at Dean. My wife absolutely adores Ackles, and I ain't even mad bro. How could she not be attracted to him? I'd question her if she didn't. His attractiveness sits somewhere between 'man crush', and 'questioning myself'. Over sharing possibly. Ah well.

  2. I left when Gabriel was killed. Because thats all it took for me I guess?

  3. This show wouldn't still be on without the chemistry of Ackles and Padalecki (and now Collins) - its honestly the only thing we come back for, shipping aside. They make their scenes, both together and alone, something worth slogging through the horse and bull shit of misogyny, racism, and sexism. Seasons 1-5 will always be the best if only because there was an actual overarching feel to it, unlike 6-8. I'm watching 9 right now and feel like its more of an extension of 5 since we're dealing with the hubris of angels (essentially celestial beings acting like Dean and Sam when their daddy died/left them).

  4. I did this exact thing, I gave up part of the way through season 7 and then last Fall I just netflixed my way through 7 and 8. I look forward to reading what you have to say about 8.

  5. >Its attitude to women (or anyone who isn't a straight white man) is atrocious

    I hate this meme. In reality, everyone on SPN gets the stick. Our straight white male protagonists have actually died several times (and so their real dad and Bobby have died for good) , and the show repeatedly points out that being a hunter kind of sucks. You're on the road all the time, doing legally dodgy things, listening to the same music, with the same person, and few people can know the truth about you. It's also been pointed out, repeatedly, how screwed up our nominal heroes are.

    Take "Mystery Spot" for example. Sam gets stuck in a Groundhog Day loop where Dean keeps dying, no matter what he does. Turns out it's the Trickster trying to get him to be less co-dependent on Dean. He finds him and talks him out of it, and they proceed to the next day, where Dean is killed for good. Six months later, Sam still hasn't given up, and the Trickster just gives up and puts reality back. They're so co-dependent that a reality warping demigod couldn't get Sam to stop.

    The only reason this nonsense exists in the first place is because the show's fanbase is mostly women, and therefore notices "wrongs" done to their group more readily than any other.

  6. Summarising your article, Supernatiural kinda sucks from the start, sucks big time after season 5, but Jensen's green eyes just keep hypnotizing you into more and more torture.

    Oh how can I relate.

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