By John Keegan
After the gloriousness of the previous episode, which was Ben Edlund hitting all cylinders, I suppose it makes sense that this would be a bit of a letdown. After all, a lot of the excitement that came out of the previous episode was the potential for the future, especially with the announcement that “Supernatural” was going to get a ninth season! So a bit of a backslide into the demon tablet plot thread was naturally going to feel like a step back.
As far as the plot goes, it’s typical “Supernatural”. To close the gates of Hell, one must fulfill three trails. Doing so gives one the power to close the gates, but it’s not exactly a pleasant or easy process. It also has a profound effect on the one seeking the power, so it’s not something to do lightly. And given that being a prophet isn’t exactly easy on Kevin, this is going to be a grueling process. (At least they’re not waiting until the last couple episodes, as they’ve done in the past!)
The First Trial is interesting enough, delving into some of the established lore regarding Crossroads demons and the Hellhounds. As with the Men of Letters arc that is apparently gearing up, it’s good to see the history of the series integrating with newer elements; it keeps the new mythology from feeling disconnected from what has come before. Even so, the mystery of who called the Crossroads demon wasn’t all that compelling, and the Cassidys were largely irritating.
The real issue in this episode was the character development. I understand that Dean is feeling a little out of his element when it comes to the bookish Men of Letters lair, but why would he default to self-sacrifice so quickly? It’s not like the end of the world is nigh. The Winchesters actually have it pretty damn good right now, all things considered. There may be problems to be solved, but this is as close as Sam and Dean have come to seeing a future for themselves as it gets.
But even setting that aside, the characters just felt like they weren’t quite acting like themselves. It felt like the writer was struggling to make Dean’s over-emoting feel genuine, so he was overdoing it. Even Sam felt a bit off, though. It got to the point, halfway through the episode, that I began to wonder if this was another off-key Buckner/Ross-Leming script. (Surprisingly, this is an Andrew Dabb script; this is the second time he’s delivered a disappointing effort this season.)
Regardless of Sam’s reason for taking on the Trials himself (which, actually, was more about who was bled upon than choice, as I recall), this is a good move. “Supernatural” tends to focus more on Dean than Sam, even when Sam is the one with the plot-driving character arc. Having Sam be the one carrying the weight of the Trials is a nice way to balance thing out a bit more.
I’ve said in recent reviews that Sam embodies the Men of Letters side of the equation, and Dean is naturally the quintessential Hunter. Maybe his descent into more fatalism is a part of being in that life, but Sam’s speech at the end of the episode summed up Dean’s value quite well. If letting Sam have a “perfect” life is Dean’s “happy ending”, why was he so angry that Sam didn’t try to save him and carry on the Hunter life while he was in Purgatory? It just feels inconsistent, and if that’s the point, then Sam should have called him out on it better, so the audience could recognize the intent.
John Keegan is Editor-in-Chief for Critical Myth, a partner site of SciFi Vision.