Supernatural Episode Review: Sacrifice (and thoughts on the season)

My boyfriend is always the first to know whether I truly loved an episode of Supernatural. Sometimes he knows it even before I do. Because even though I’m still sorting through my feelings in the wake of an episode, if the overall effect was positive I can’t wait to sit him down and force him to listen to me yak about it.

Last night, after the season eight finale, he asked me, “How was it?”

I was pretty sure I’d liked the episode. I mean, what’s not to like? The entire host of Heaven fell to Earth in a fiery blaze, Abaddon beat the crap out of Crowley, Sam and Dean shared a touching brother moment, and Cas lost his grace (I may or may not have been wishing for this for the last several seasons). But when he asked me that question, my only response was a weary, “Eh, it’s a long story.”

Jeremy Carver was supposed to be our salvation after the long, dark, Gamble years. And at first, it looked like he would be. The beginning of the season was loaded with potential. But as the season went on, flaws started to become evident, flaws that were present but overlooked even in the earliest episodes. Why, with full control of the show and the fandom 100% behind him, could Carver not seem to decide what story he wanted to tell?

Now, I’m not tearing down our SEASON GR8. Not entirely. There was greatness here. Remember Dean’s reunion with Cas in Purgatory, Sam’s speech to Dean when first taking on the trials, Kevin’s magnificent showdown with Crowley, Cas’s brave struggle against mind control to save Dean’s life, Abaddon’s explosive entrance, and the CGI masterpiece that was the final scene of the finale. I could go on. But that’s just it: this season was made up of moments that gripped us by the heart, but lacking cohesion, pacing, and context, they didn’t live up to their full potential.

I feel like the finale was a good illustration of everything that was good and everything that was wrong with the season as a whole. It was overcomplicated, jumbled, and poorly paced, but a few scenes jumped out and completely took my breath away. Abaddon’s beatdown on Crowley was glorious, but she arrived out of nowhere and disappeared just as fast, having made no real impact on the trajectory of the story. Metatron stealing Castiel’s grace was riveting, but distracted by too many twists in the angel storyline unnecessarily crammed into one episode. Dean and Sam shared a moment that made me tear up shamelessly, but by interrupting the final trial and leaving that season-long plotline hanging, making us feel as though we’d spent the last twenty-three episodes accomplishing nothing.

It’s as if Carver knows what notes he wants to hit, but he can’t quite string them together properly. When he hits a note, it’s masterful. But the notes seem to come out of order or at the wrong time, they don’t get enough buildup, and there’s too much aimless downtime in between them.

The other problem is that Carver tries to do too much. Early in the season, he tried to juggle Sam and Dean’s story with flashbacks into Dean’s time in Purgatory and Sam’s time with Amelia. But this proved to be needlessly complicated, distracting, and unrewarding. It might have worked if he had simply devoted the first episode or two (or three) to Purgatory and Amelia, reuniting Sam and Dean later on, but he went the complicated route and it didn’t pay off. But Carver didn’t learn from this and simplify things. By the end of the season, so many extra characters, factions, and motives had been set up that there was no way not to make the finale feel like a confused mess.

My last big gripe with this episode and this season has less to do with storytelling. Now, I know that Supernatural has always had serious issues with its treatment of women, people of color, and gender and sexual minorities. I don’t have the perfect hindsight required to say whether or not this season was definitively worse than any other; all I have is my recollection of certain lines and certain scenes that have stopped me in my tracks and made me think, “Yep, this was written by cis, straight, white dudes.” Foremost in my mind is Castiel’s comment about the woman who he “doesn’t think was actually a woman.” What a way to leave a bad taste in my mouth in the middle of an otherwise adorable and poignant scene! Then there was Jody: tortured and her fate left ambiguous. Naomi: apparently fridged in favor of a white male antagonist. And Abaddon: given one short scene before being unceremoniously disposed of. And at least in Naomi’s and Abaddon’s cases, I can’t imagine why Carver spent so much time building them up as interesting and complex villains if he clearly didn’t care enough about them to give them pivotal roles in the finale.

But back to the storytelling issue.

Ironically, considering I was a pretty vocal detractor of her work on the show at the time, Carver’s problems with pacing and tone make me long for Sera Gamble. I’m feeling a lot more charitable to her in hindsight, and I urge anyone who still thinks the seventh season sucked to give it a good, open-minded re-watch. Gamble took the show to some pretty dark places, and at the time it seemed she was wallowing in angst for angst’s sake. But she knew what she was doing, and all the angst paid off with some of the best character scenes of the entire show and one of the strongest season finales.

I believe that one of Carver’s greatest strengths lies in knowing what his fans want. I’ve never known a show-runner to be so involved in a fandom, especially a fandom with a reputation for drama like Supernatural’s. He knew that we needed a Dean/Cas hug. He knew that Crowley needed to be knocked down a few pegs. He knew that Kevin needed to level up. He knew that Charlie needed a back-story. He knew that Sam needed to find absolution for what he perceives to be his sins. And when we get emotional payloads like that, we forget what came before and after. We overlook the fact that, often, continuity and characterization and flow and credibility had to be sacrificed to get us to that next big narrative note.

My ideal show-runner would be some kind of hybrid clone of Gamble and Carver: someone who can maintain consistency through a season and build up to genuine development of character and plot, but who can also inject enough joy into the viewing experience to keep it engaging in the moment.

Now please, go back to enjoying the aftermath of SEASON GR8. My gripes with the finale and with Carver’s debut season do not temper my fannish glee, and I hope they don’t temper yours either. Let’s all stay strong through the summer Hellatus. See you when SEASON GR9 premiers.

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