Author’s Note: I decided to split this into two posts, as it quickly became longer than I expected. I was always taught to open with criticisms and finish on a positive note, so today I’ll be doing my best bad cop routine.
Supernatural’s eighth season is a vast improvement over the seventh, but it’s still falling short of its glory days. This series has taken the word ‘repetitive’ to previously unimagined heights.
The ‘return to its roots’ mantra that has been tossed about by both the writers and fans since season 7 began puts an overly optimistic spin on things. The preferred method to return the show to its roots after the universally lambasted sixth season appears to be reliance on a rigid formula.
It goes as follows (don’t worry, it’s not really a spoiler, as this actually happens on many seasons of Supernatural): After a season spent fighting The Big Bad, one of the Winchesters makes a big sacrifice and gets sent to a hellish dimension of some sort in the season finale, then miraculously reappears on the next season’s premiere. The remainder of the season will be consumed by flashbacks of the hellish place, hints that the time spent in the hellish dimension was even more horrible than you’d imagine (hampered slightly by the fact that viewers could imagine a far more horrific place than the show’s budget can create), examples of how the hellish place changed the person who went there in some fundamental way, and finally the big reveal of how the brother escaped.
Heck, you were probably getting bored reading about the generic hellish place, and it only took you a few seconds to skim that paragraph; imagine reading it for a whole year, or even several years.
The other brother will have countless flashbacks of what life was like while his sibling was in the hellish place, and he’ll express both guilt for allowing himself to enjoy it and his feeling that something was missing without the life of a hunter. As the season progresses, his flashbacks will take on a bittersweet dichotomy: Increasingly cloying scenes where the viewer sees just how much he wants to hang on to the life he had while the brother was gone, and a growing certainty that the old life must be forever abandoned now that the brother is back. Finally some big event will happen that makes the decision for him; it will most likely involve violence against the woman he wants to stay with.
Flashbacks are best when used very sparingly, regardless of the medium. The problem with Supernatural is that the writers don’t seem to see any problem with basing entire seasons on them, and season eight seems to be ratcheting up this tendency to extreme proportions. This is doubly problematic because shows like Supernatural, by design, also rely heavily on foreshadowing and premonitions of the evil to come, played out over massive story arcs. That means that a huge swath of screen time is taken away from the here and now. The episodes that do focus entirely on the present often end up being fluff and filler episodes, only tenuously connected to the rest of the show.
What is lacking is a significant amount of episodes that progress the plot in the present time. That type of episode should be the rule, not the exception.
The Winchesters’ relationship also seems to have stagnated. Here’s the thing with tension: It is always ruled by pacing, uncertainty, and exposure. There is rarely enough time given between the brothers’ spats and tantrums, so there is no longer any tension in the fights.
If the viewer knows for a fact that the brothers will quickly be at each other’s throats again, even if they resolve their current argument, there is no tension. There needs to be the possibility for a happy, friendly relationship if we are expected to have an emotional investment in their arguments. As it stands, Sam and Dean feeling angry/betrayed/undervalued/ignored/whatever at one another is just background noise. It is always there. They need to have some story arcs where the brothers are getting along very well in order to sell the drama when they are fighting.