Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Supernatural Supreme

So I heard tell that various peeps across the internet were dissin' up Supernatural Season 6 during the first half of its run, and I decided to jump right on that and offer a full-throated defence a mere three months too late.  Punctuality is not how I roll!

Well, there's that, and the fact that the sixth year of the show is really something that has to be viewed as a whole. Frankly, I'm not sure I'm particularly happy about that fact: I'm on the record (so, so many times) as feeling a little disappointed that this series has become so wrapped up in its year-long stories that the only time we take a break for something different it's invariably a "comedy" episode, which don't always work as well as people think ("The French Mistake" isn't funny, it's just several dozen people shouting "We can take a joke!" straight at the camera), and can become rather irritating in bulk.  Like the X-Files before it, this show needs a string to its bow besides "mythology" episodes and taking the piss (though admittedly Supernatural does both significantly better than its spiritual antecedent).

In any event, I might not necessarily be entirely happy with the direction the show took somewhere around Season 3, it is what it is, and that has to be recognised.  And, viewed in its entirety, I think Season 6 is probably the best year the show has put out since Jeffrey Dean Morgan stopped showing up for work.

From this point on, spoilers are abroad.

The thing about Supernatural is that it's a show about two men trying to save innocent people from the depredations of the horrific denizens of the night.  That is not really a set-up that allows for a great deal of moral ambiguity.  Given that basis, the show has done pretty well in introducing shades of grey - not all monsters need be killed, sometimes deals with demons are the only way out, exactly how many civilian casualties can you justify in a war to save humanity - but the basic poles of Good and Evil have always existed.  Particularly evil, of course, whether it be Azazel, Lilith or Lucifer.  The good guys have become increasingly complex, and we've learned thanks to Zachariah, Raphael and Michael that simply being a servant of God doesn't prevent one from being a thundering douche, but the opposite corner has always remained the same, Lucifer's unappreciated freedom-fighter shtick notwithstanding.

This is fairly unsurprising, of course.  There's a limit to how much second-guessing a show like this could allow from its heroes - and note they are heroes, not merely protagonists - so even as Sam succumbed to his demon-blood addiction in Season 4, it was important we not start wondering whether we wouldn't be better off with Lilith in charge.  Besides, the first five years of the show were all about accelerating downhill, plunging towards the end of the world, and that's not something anyone needs to think twice about wanting to nip in the bud.

Season 6 has re-written the rules somewhat.  Not entirely, but enough.  With the apocalypse averted, or at least delayed, the story has not become one of frustrating the ultimate evil, but of staking out a piece of territory after the ultimate evil has been conquered.  It's Europe after the fall of Berlin.  It's Babylon 5 after the Shadow War.  It's the Federation after defeating the Dominion, if they hadn't insisted on giving us years of Jeri Ryan's tits and absolutely nothing fucking else.

In short, it's time to move on from the struggle against what can safely be considered an objective "bad guy", and move on to the desperate political wrangling that would inevitably follow. The the first three years of Supernatural gave us the Winchesters versus the demons, with the occasional spoiler thrown in, and where Seasons 4 and 5 offered the angelic host as a de jure third party (though de facto all of them bar Anna were either pretty much on Dean and Sam's side, or doing what Lucifer wanted in any case), Season 6 presents us with no fewer than five factions vying for power: the two sets of angels led respectively by Castiel and Raphael, the hordes of Hell under Crowley, the remaining Lucifer loyalists represented by Meg, and the creatures spilling out of Purgatory under the command of Eve.

That's the first success of the season - a level of complexity the show hasn't even tried for until now.  The second success is just how well it inverts our expectations.  Balthasar - played with louche reptilian charm by  Sebastian Roche, who I've loved since his stint in the criminally underrated (albeit written by a right-wing prick) Odyssey 5 - evolves from antagonist to unwilling ally and finally stool pigeon, and works just as well in all three roles.  Crowley continues to impress by playing all angles simultaneously and with Mark Sheppard's trademark rough charisma.  Eve confounds expectations not so much in how she's played by Julia Maxwell, but how she's played by Crowley and Castiel, spinning the entire series 180 degrees.

Which brings us to Castiel himself, of course.  By the end of the season he's gone from being an honorary member of the Winchester clan to an untrustworthy asset, to a shifty enigma, and finally to a vainglorious, violent thug.  What makes this so tragic isn't just how far a fan favourite character for three seasons has fallen, but that in retrospect it was so horribly inevitable.  Season 6 isn't about the Winchesters versus the forces of darkness - though the writers were smart enough to pretend that it is - it's about how three different groups of ostensible heroes - Castiel's forces, the followers of Raphael, and the Winchesters themselves - end up thoroughly screwing each other over in their attempts to achieve their idea of what a post-Lucifer world should look like.

A lot of what I've described above only becomes explicit later in the season, though, and I'm aware that I started this post by suggesting fans who disliked the first half of the year were in error.  The reason why is simple - the PTSD-inducing series of earthquakes and explosions that rocked the latter half of Season 6 could only work following an extended set-up.  In any post-war power struggle, there will always be people who don't actually realise there's a struggle going on at all.  People who have fought so hard, and lost so much, that they're happy to just put down their weapons for a while, and who assume everyone else feels the same way.  Indeed, Dean specifically did that, and the show needed to address that.

Hence the return of Sam, but not as we knew him.  I know some fans were disappointed that Sam's all-new, all-soulless persona really cut down on the banter (which I'm not sure is true, so much as that the banter got a lot blacker and meaner, which I'm generally a fan of, obviously), but it served three purposes.  Firstly, it provided Dean, and the viewer, with a puzzle, an introduction to the season's events, and in a very obvious way.  "What has happened to Sam" works much better for me than "What's all this crap about Purgatory, then?", and unlike some developments in previous seasons, actually makes sense in retrospect, considering Castiel's conflicting desires to repay the Winchesters, but also have them not poke around the bigger picture, whilst also holding up his end of his deal with Crowley.

Second, it allows Dean to get back into the game without being able to hold on to Lisa and Ben.  Much as I think the series could have ended perfectly about ten seconds before the credits rolled on "Swan Song", now that we got a follow-on, it was clear Dean's new family couldn't really come along for the ride.  Had Sam returned whole, I don't think there's any chance he would have allowed Dean to become estranged from Lisa to the degree he did.

The third reason ties into the second: Sam's brusque return to Dean's life almost perfectly mirrors Dean's unannounced arrival in Sam's dorm all the way back in the series premiere.  This show has gotten a lot of mileage out of first the idea that Dean and Sam aren't all that different, and then later that Sam might actually be the better hunter despite Dean being the more dedicated to the job.  This, though, is the true inversion, with Dean constantly reminded by what he's had to leave behind, and Sam focussed on nothing but the next kill.  If Jessica hadn't burst into flame on Sam's ceiling, then who knows?  Maybe this is exactly how the first season would have developed, with the two brothers simply swapping roles.  Season 6 is supposedly not just the tale of what happened next, but a new beginning, unhindered (though obviously not uninformed) by what has gone before.  Starting it off with a photo negative of the shows initial steps out into the world strikes me as thematically very powerful.

The other objection I've heard regarding the first half of Season 6 is the rather peripheral role Samuel Campbell played in events.  He showed up, shouted a lot, betrayed our heroes, and got himself killed two thirds of the way through the year (his poor relatives didn't even do that well).  Again, though, I think that's a strength of the season, not a weakness.  Samuel was brought back by Crowley (or more likely by Castiel on Crowley's recommendation) to perform exactly one job - find Purgatory.  Once Eve was loosed on the world, poor ol' Sammy Senior Senior became entirely superfluous, and got himself done in by Crowley's new toy.  The fact that neither Samuel had no more idea than Eve that they were only on the world because Crowley wanted it makes his death all the more senseless and tragic, but it certainly doesn't make his brief resurrection pointless.  It's just that his return was one more fake-out in a season that turned the bluff and the red herring into an art form (as oppose to, say, the aforementioned X-Files, which wound up using them as crutches).

I've been told that Kripke had a great deal of input into the second half of Season 6, after the first half was badly received by fans.  I've no idea if that's true, though I don't find it particularly difficult to believe, but that doesn't really matter.  For whatever reason, Season 6 hangs together as a complete and wonderfully complex whole.  It's no longer what it once was, but what it once was had a limited shelf-life in any case.  I say hail to the new boss, whether or not they're the same as the old boss or not.

(Seriously, though: dragons and phoenix look just like regular dudes?  Knock that shit off!)

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