Supernatural Season 8: Grading season “GR8” – Part 1

Being a Supernatural fan can be hard. SPN is an emotional show that yanks us through the full range of reactions, and leaves us reeling regularly. We’re constantly in fear of our favorite characters being killed, maimed, tortured or abused, because they’ve shown that no character is safe, no relationship is sacred, and that for every quip and laugh they give us, they will rip our hearts out six times in payment. Like Chuck before them, the writers are cruel and capricious gods of the universe they’ve created, and so it can be difficult to look at episodes objectively when you frequently want to throw your shoe at the TV and rescue your characters from their own story.

How do you separate yourself from those ‘feels’ to grade each episode on its merits, cast a level eye at the flaws, and come to a solid conclusion on the strength of the episode itself? Well, if you’re an obsessive compulsive hyperanalytic fangirl, like me, you create a rubric for comparison.

And so the Supernatural Report Card was born from late nights arguing with  my watch group about each episode, a few too many pots of coffee, and a compulsive need to determine if Supernatural season “GR8” was really living up to the hype. The SPNRC looks at 23 specific areas of plot, script, characterization and production and assigns a set amount of points per area, adding up to a potential 100% perfect score, an A+.

Watching episodes critically, with an eye for specific elements that are involved in a successful episode of Supernatural, actually helped me appreciate certain aspects more. From paying attention to cinematography and music, which I often overlook unless they’re bad, to the more problematic points of women and minority treatment (near and dear to the Geekiary staff in all fandoms), to fanwank favorites topics of show continuity and character bias, quantifying each episode gives us a solid understanding of where Season 8 has gone wrong, what it did right, and lets us really dig into the meat of the season.

So with the season finale right around the corner, let’s look back at the rest of Season 8 to see how things shook out, and come up with that final grade at the end.

Supernatural Season 8, Episodes 1-7

We Need to Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin: Season 8, Episode 1

Written by Jeremy Carver, Directed by Robert Singer

Coming back from the break, the first episode of the season is unsurprisingly plot-heavy, relying on flashbacks to tell us the story of Dean’s time in Purgatory, Sam’s time in Kermit, and even Kevin’s time with Crowley. While it could seem choppy, they handled the flashbacks smoothly in this first episode. Full marks in plot, as it established the mytharc (closing the doors of hell), the subplots (Purgatory Time, Amelia), and included both lead characters equally in the storytelling. The script receives full marks for Drama with the conflict between the boys and the grit of the plot, Horror with Purgatory’s monsters, the demon bomb and gore, and continuity as we build on last season’s “tablets” and pick up in flashbacks almost exactly where we left off. It’s strong for humor in the repartee, and in emotion, though both feel uncomfortable because of the immediate bro-fights of the season.

The episode introduced two new secondary characters, Benny and Amelia, but did little to build interest in Amelia. We saw the return of Kevin Tran, and a big change in how likable he is: the prophet came a long way in the time Sam left him alone. Castiel’s absence from the story was another hit after the cliffhanger of Season 7, so 3 out of 4 on Secondary characters. As for episodic characters. . . well, they killed them all. Hard to get attached when they play little role in the overall, and they’re dead before we get their names. Speaking of, we have female characters represented as bitchy (Amelia–was her attitude supposed to make us like her?), shallow (the college roommate and Kevin’s girlfriend, both dead by the end of the episode), and eventually we have two fridged females: most notably, Channing was killed in dramatic slow-mo because it’s not Supernatural unless women are being killed just for the emotional impact it will have on the male characters. Kevin’s proving a great minority addition to a usually whitewashed cast. Full marks in production, too, as the pacing was exceptional, there were multiple well designed sets, the visual effects were flawless and we had two great songs (“Locomotive Breath” and “Man in the Wilderness”).

On to the three most subjective portions of the grading, we take a look at the cast performance  which I thought was spot-on. Both lead actors really fell right back into their characters, and Jensen in particular gave a nuanced performance of Dean that left no doubts that the hunter’s time in Purgatory had more effect on him than he’s saying, and Jared played Sam’s guilt at having left Kevin on his own well. Mark was Crowley was at his smarmiest, and Osric brought it up a notch from last season’s performance with Kevin. Characterization in this first episode, however, left something to be desired: even at the end of the season, we’re still questioning that Sam never looked for Dean, and Dean’s dismissal of Kevin’s loss seem out of sync with the Dean and Sam of seasons past. Overall, it was a solid season start and a good episode, but my satisfaction was tampered somewhat by immediate and episode-constant brofights, confusion over what we were supposed to be taking away from Kermit and the Dog, and no Castiel.

Score: 86/100, B

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What’s Up, Tiger Mommy?: Season 8, Episode 2

Written by Andrew Dabb and Daniel Loflin, Directed by John Showalter

Another solid mytharc episode, What’s Up, Tiger Mommy? gave us a episode plot of rescuing (and then reevaluating) Linda Tran, and then the auction for the demon tablet and Kevin. In the long run, the auction story seems a bit superfluous on it’s own, but the mytharc is well advanced. We have major strides in the Purgatory subplot (Cas!) through flashbacks, but for the first time we see Dean dominating the story line of an episode. His subplot is advanced where Sam’s is untouched, and he has more role in the story plot than Sam, leaving it slightly unbalanced in Dean’s favor for this episode.

The script hit hard on Drama, from the interrogation scene with PTSD-style flashbacks, to Linda’s offer of her soul, and throughout the entire story. Humor was also spot-on and delivered by all characters, from the tattoo parlor scene, to Dean’s overflowing box of confiscated weapons, to Crowley’s sass and Castiel’s droll commentary on sanity. Not as much horror as we’re used to from Supernatural, but the story was well driven in other means, and the emotional content of the Purgatory scenes alone would have been enough to make any Destiel fangirl squeal (“I prayed to you, Cas! Every night!” “To keep them away from you.” and that hug). Continuity’s only miss was the reverse exorcism (say the words backwards? Really?) but the crossroads-demon red-eyed Crowley made all of us take notice.

ImageProduction was once again solid, with the only problem being that the pacing was at times choppy. It was a secondary-character heavy episode, featuring Kevin Tran, Benny and Cas, and introducing us to Samandriel and Linda (who despite her earlier appearance actualized as a character in this episode). Our episode characters were a colorful lot and you got the feeling there was a story behind all of the people at the Auction House, and even the man in the jail and the man at the pawn shop were used to good effect to advance the story. Our female representation in this episode was provided by Linda, who was fierce, maternal and self-sacrificing, but we had two women arbitrarily killed: the woman at the bank and, but most notably, Ms. Tran’s neighbor Eunice. The boys literally shoved an escaping demon back into a woman just to stab her and kill her. When did they stop caring about innocent deaths? It felt off. The ding to the minority score this time was in calling Ms. Tran “mail order” as an insult to an Asian woman. Crowley got full marks for villainy once again, as you’d expect from the King of Hell.

All of the cast delivered solid and layered performances again, with all of them contributing to the verbal and visual humor and the stand-out performances from Misha and Jensen in the Purgatory scenes. As for characterization, Dean’s dismissing of Ms. Tran’s sacrifice of her soul seemed out of character for him (“We got off cheap”) even accounting for his emotional issues after Purgatory, considering he has literally done the same thing and it was a major plot point for much of the series. Overall, the Purgatory piece was incredibly satisfying, the mytharc was dealt with, the acting was great, but the episode story seemed a bit contrived, just to throw a roadblock into the mytharc.

Score: 88/100, B+

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Heartache: Season 8, Episode 3

Written by Brad Buckner and Eugenie Ross-Leming, Directed by Jensen Ackles

Usually I’m wiling to accept a slight nod to the Mytharc as a point, but the switch between Mytharc centric episodes to Monster of the Week format this time was jarring in its lack of segue, and the episode suffered for following the first two. It was just not strong enough of an episode plot to fit there, and it did very little to advance the secondary plots (we get a small glimpse of Amelia at the very end that. . . told no real individual story). On the plus side. . . both boys played into what plot there was equally once again.

ImageOur drama in this episode was in the conflict between the brothers, for the most part–unfortunately, to the detriment of the humor (sparse) and the emotion (strained and uncomfortable). The heart-ripping, heart-eating, eye-gouging managed to deliver us some solid horror, though, and that nod back to minor character Morrison, the translator from “Slice Girls,” won full marks for continuity. Where this episode really suffered, outside of the plot, was in the characters. Our only secondary character was Amelia, and this episode did nothing to develop her further. Our episode characters, conversely, had an interesting story–the love affair between Mrs. Holmes and Brick, a human and an immortal, was the driving point of the story, and the choices that people will make selfishly (to live forever, be better) was a focal point. Mrs. Holmes was a good female character, the stripper was. . . eh, Amelia was a blip, but overall I can’t fault the episode for treatment of females terribly.

Minorities played a role without being singled out as minority, so no real complaint there. The villain/monster of the week, though, just. . . wasn’t compelling. Meanwhile. . . where’s my music, Supernatural?

Once again, the main cast was “on,” and there were no real misses in the episode cast, so full marks there again. Characterization suffered for me because the boys were both exceptionally passive-aggressive, and it just became uncomfortable to watch. Combined with an episode that just couldn’t keep my attention on the story of it, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped to.

Score: 71/100, C-

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Bitten: Season 8, Episode 4

Written by Robbie Thompson, Directed by Thomas Wright

This episode suffered greatly on the points not just because it divorced itself from the usual format of Supernatural by becoming “Winchester-Lite,” but because it didn’t establish itself as a stand-alone strongly. There was no mytharc reference. No subplot advancement. I’m giving full marks for episode plot, but it didn’t grab me in the script as I would have wanted to see if they were going to play with the concept. The drama was melodramatic at times, the humor didn’t really reach me, the emotion was stilted by the melodrama. However, full marks for horror in the psychological aspect as well as the gore, and for continuity with the Mayan god callback to last ep, and the Alphas.

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We saw nothing of our recurring cast, obviously, as we saw very little of the Winchesters themselves. Full marks for episode characters because. . . well, it was their story. Minorities didn’t really play into the show this time, but what we did see didn’t seem misrepresented or abused, so I gave full marks. Now. . . women. I debated this one quite a bit. Kate, the lead female in this episode, isn’t a bad character. In fact, for a Supernatural woman she’s alright. We see several instances though of threats of assault against women, the “Stop!” girl, the threat to “pay a visit” to Kate, and then later Brian “forcing” Kate by biting her after making unwanted advances. I dinged the women score. Our villain/monster of the week, while ostensibly it was the werewolf, one could argue the people themselves were more the villain (Michael’s “I’m a golden god,” Kate going blood and gore, Brian’s jealousy driving him over the edge). I wasn’t sold entirely.

However, pacing was fine, and while the music was a jarring change from what we’re used to it fit with the story of the characters. I didn’t like the found footage effect. It came across choppy, not to mention motion-sickness inducing. I also wasn’t overwhelmed with the werewolves themselves.

The actors this time were not bad, though they’re not the caliber I’m used to seeing carrying this show. As for characterization, I have to look at the brief glimpses we got of the boys: Dean being the one to let her go, after everything we’ve gotten him out of this season, and Sam. . . it was hard to get a read on either of them, and they may have felt off because we’d just spent the rest of the episode watching other characters, but it didn’t gel for me. Overall, while I’ve liked many of the “Doctor Lite” episodes of Doctor Who, this was less “Blink” and more a humorless “Love and Monsters.” In a few ways.

Score: 61/100, D-

Blood Brother

Blood Brother: Season 8, Episode 5

Written by Ben Edlund, Directed by Guy Bee

Blood Brother did a decent job of addressing the mytharc by establishing that the Winchesters’ search for Kevin leads them to a deliberate dead ends, showcasing that they are still looking for the prophet, while explaining how he keeps a step ahead of them. The episode plot with Benny and the Vampirates is a strong, interesting story, and the subplots of both Purgatory and Amelia are addressed head on. Dean once again took a bit more or a role in the episode than Sam, as he had both flashbacks and a role in the ongoing story, but Sam’s flashbacks and his deliberate friction with Benny kept him in the game for the present story as well. It’s just that his flashbacks aren’t as compelling as Dean’s. The script was spot-on through all of the graded segments, with the exception of a continuity question: the Leviathan crashing through the air and doing a full-on Venom Symbiote manifestation is a great special effect, but. . . flying Leviathan. And meanwhile, nitpicky as it may be, where the heck did Sam learn to become household Mr. Fix-It? I dinged it for the Levi’s (who have ALWAYS been a continuity issue, as the impossible to kill creatures who you just have to behead like everything else they fight).

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Secondary characters play a huge role this time around as Benny takes center stage, Cas features in the Team Free Purgatory flashbacks, and Sam’s hung up on his memories of Amelia and takes us on the trip to the establishment of their relationship. Even the episode characters are interesting, with Andrea and the Vampirates. Female characters. . . well, okay. Here’s a point of annoyed SPN fan feminist. I overlook a lot: honestly, take a look back and there are episodes here with women fridged and I’m docking a point at most because hey, other women lived. The bar is so low that they can step over it at this point because I try not to get finicky about it. But really? ANOTHER male character whose love interest was brutally killed in front of him as part of his backstory, in order to justify a revenge trip? And then she’s alive but it’s not her so her beloved memory will live on while they have to kill her monster corpse. Again.

The pacing was a bit choppy with the Sam/Amelia thing feeling. . . well, forced at times (Is it REALLY this easy to make his mind wander? What is he, JD from Scrubs?) but I feel like that was something they felt they HAD to do so I did not dock points. Shout out to the sets people here too: that house on Prentiss Island in particular was interesting in every room they showed, and I’m all for letting Jensen play with boats. No real musical moment here, but the use of Benny whistling in Purgatory, with the echo effect, was haunting and cool.

Cast performance was strong, with all our boys (including Misha and Ty) giving great performances–what got me was Amelia and the father vampire. Once again Amelia was overacted (I WANT to like her, but I’m not being sold on this character) and the “well I AM evil after all” line from the vampirate king was cringe-worthy. I enjoyed getting to see a post-purgatory BAMF Dean cutting through that nest: wow. Cas is alternately  inadvertently hilarious and silently heart-wrenching without seeming strained in it, the dynamic in Purgatory is amusing to watch, and the subtly of Jared’s delivery of the line on motels not being part of any town and people who live in them being outsiders for some reason struck me. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the episode, I just wish the Sam memories were dealt with in a way that didn’t make them seem like an interruption.

Score: 92/100

Southern Comfort

Southern Comfort: Season 8, Episode 6

Written by Adam Glass, Directed by Tim Andrew

We had a one-comment nod to the mytharc with “Kevin’s in the wind” to start us out, and the episode plot was pretty standard-fair classic Supernatural monster-of-the-week. The subplot advanced with attempts to get Dean to talk about Purgatory, but moreso with all of Sam’s many flashbacks to his time with Amelia. Both boys were included equally in the story itself, too. Looking at the script, brofights and Dean mourning Bobby gave us all the drama, but the humor was stale, ‘isn’t this character goofy,’ or provided at the expense of our lead characters’ intelligence. That drives me nuts, but more on that later. Horror had the car dragging, the gore, the shovel scene, the ghost, so full marks there. Emotion, we were right back to brofights, so they were a boon and a drawback, and the Bobby stuff. . . thanks, Supernatural, still not over it.

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Now, secondary characters played in with Garth and Amelia, but neither of them resonated for me this time around really. Episode characters were driven by the possessed victims playing out their grudges, so a lot of episode character involvement. Our villain was a spin on an old classic, with the spectre crossing ghost and possession  Female characters, I didn’t find anything to ding them on in particular: they were there, they had their stories, and they played their roles. Minorities. . . okay, this drove me nuts. First of all, they didn’t have any minority representation this episode. Instead, they acted like everyone from Missouri was a redneck bigot blah blah blah okay. Supernatural. I know you’re in Canada, but really. Try not to stereotype? You’re chock full of it this episode and it is driving me nuts. It’s not “okay” because they’re white. It’s not progressive and defending the minorities because you’re in a “southern” state. It’s emphasizing that you don’t get it.

The pacing was distracting this time with the Sam flashbacks. It really was just hard to see how they were justifying where and how to cut, and when a cut-to-flashbacks makes your audience give a collective eyeroll and yawn, you’re doing something wrong. Cinematography, FX, full marks, but let’s look at another thing that drove me nuts. That fringe jacket. A Texas Ranger in Missouri. . . in a fringe sueded leather jacket and a cowboy hat. That isn’t visual humor, that is teeth-grating that anyone would A) buy it and B) think that was a suitable disguise. I gave a point for the sets (the graveyard, the tomb of the Confederate Unknown Soldier, the library) but that jacket. Music, I was with Dean: the ringtones were overmuch and cringe-worthy, but they tossed in Soundgarden’s “Fall on Black Days” so a point there.

The cast performance was solid from Jensen and Jared; Jensen gave us a rage pout about Bobby, can act a fake smile and show us what Dean’s really thinking as he does, and Jared gave Sam’s nonverbal “Not It!” as he ditched Dean with Garth, so there were actually entire non-dialogue conversations between the boys. Garth and Amelia didn’t sell it, again, and it’s beginning to affect my enjoyment of these characters. Here’s where things really hit me, though. Characterization is my biggest sticking point in a show. I like my characters to sound like my characters, act like my characters, and be treated respectfully as my characters. They are, after all, why I watch the show. Dumbing down the leads to make a secondary character seem more intelligent, or for the delivery of dumb jokes at their expense, doesn’t work for me. They did that a lot. Meanwhile, Garth came across as a self-righteous ass in lecturing the Winchesters and trying to step in for Bobby emotionally, just in how he presented himself. It did not endear him; it was irritating. The Brofights in this one escalated to painful-to-watch highs. Not just in possessed Dean, but most specifically in a Sam who at the end threatens to abandon his brother (“move on or I will”) and states the intent to kill Dean’s friend if he gets the chance. Where is my Sammy? Because this isn’t him.

Score: 74/100, C

sliceofkevin

A Little Slice of Kevin: Season 8, Episode 7

Written by Eugenie Ross-Leming and Brad Buckner, Directed by Charlie Carner

This was a solid plot episode, with advancement of the mytharc, a strong episode story, big strides in the Purgatory subplot, and heavy Dean involvement. Sam was involved (he found the case, did the research), but it was a big Dean-centric. Not shocking since Cas returned from the dead as far as he was concerned. Cas headed off a huge cast of the secondary characters, including Benny, Kevin, Linda, Naomi, Samandriel. . . full marks, that secondary cast is really driving things so far this season, and I love having a full cast. Episode characters included the prophets and Delta-the-witch, so no complaints there. We have another fridged woman to scare Kevin, with the potential prophet lady, and Crowley attempting to do the same to Linda. Crowley, as always, is a compelling villain however so I can’t fault the episode there.

spnrc0807As for the script, it was chock full of Drama from the suspense build of the daycare on through tons of Purgatory, Cas and Dean, Crowley’s a dick, Kevin’s been taken drama. Humor was a little more sparse, but that’s not exactly surprising, and we did get some from our sassy King of Hell. The Horror quota was met the moment he tortured Samandriel, as far as I’m concerned, but certainly didn’t stop there. Continuity was solid, with the prophets, the reference to how messed up Cas left Heaven, and the Cas and Crowley interactions. We also get big emotion from Dean and Cas–“You can’t save everyone my friend” alone. . .

The episode was fast paced, accomplishing a lot in one hour, and the fight camera in Purgatory, well placed slo-mo moments and the sweeps were excellent. The special effects for Benny’s hopping a ride, demon bombs, the portal, they were all well done. I loved the little details on the set warning about losing fingers, and we got The Animals for music. Full marks in production. In the scene together, I felt the Trans were a little overacted, and though Kevin balanced out over the rest of the episode, that one scene stuck out because the rest of the show and cast was fantastic. Now, characterization took a couple of dings: the thing that stood out to me the most was, after seeing Castiel and looking haunted and actually talking about his feelings, which Sam has heckled Dean to do since season 1, and talking about Purgatory, which Sam has wanted Dean to do since start of season, what we got was Sam slapping Dean on the shoulder and telling him to “walk past it.” I just don’t see it; no matter how sleepy Sam was, he’d be all about getting Dean to keep going. Overall, however, I thoroughly enjoyed this episode as one of my favorites of the early part of the season.

Score: 94/100, A

So, how does the rest of the season stack up? Stay tuned for the next two parts as we count down to the season finale. If you want to get involved, check out the SPN Report Card for yourself, and let us know what you get in the comments–obviously, there’s room for different interpretation and I would love to see yours!

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