Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Road So Far

My other favorite show of recent years, Supernatural, will be back at least for a sixth season, but the conclusion of this past season marked the end supposedly of creator Eric Kripke's original planned five-season arc and, along with it, his tenure as showrunner.  Kripke will still be around in a part-time capacity next season as the show moves to Fridays, where it will continue under the able guidance of writer and producer Sera Gamble.  So the series is not done yet, and next season may even provide a fresh start.  In the meantime, we can look back and reflect on what made Kripke's Supernatural so great.

To start with, I think Supernatural must take the award for greatest "Previously..." segment with its "The Road So Far" montages that kick off every season finale.  Yes, I'm being serious.  For years, the gold standard had been the recap preceding Buffy the Vampire Slayer's 100th episode, "The Gift," also the finale to the show's fifth season (which, coincidentally enough, was Buffy's last with Joss Whedon as its showrunner).  Opening in typical fashion with the "Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer" voice-over by Anthony Stewart Head, that 38-second refresher then unexpectedly took things all the way back to the first episode and proceeded to accelerate through clips from all five seasons, effectively flashing through the show's entire life up to that point, before cutting seamlessly into the "proper" beginning of the episode.  Perfectly matched to the weighty events that followed, the exhaustive montage left no doubt that a good "Previously" is an inseparable part of the episode, and it's a crime that it was cut from the Region-1 DVD release.

Erm, back to Supernatural, every season finale has begun with a montage, not just of the usual immediately pertinent dialogue, but of clips from the entire season leading up to that finale--clips mostly of the Winchester brothers taking care of business--set to the sounds of "Carry On Wayward Son" by Kansas.  As with "The Gift," these segments are not merely informative but are meant to set the tone for the rest of the episode.  They are even more important to Supernatural, however, because the situation heading into those finales always seems so bleak, the fight so increasingly unwinnable, yet hearing "Carry On Wayward Son" always rouses us to the truth that, whatever enemies and obstacles stand in their path, this is Sam and Dean Winchester's story and no one else's.  So energizing are these "The Road So Far" recaps that, to be honest, the past two seasons, I've found myself looking forward to just these segments almost more so than anything else on television.

And this season especially needed that moment of clarity instilling confidence, not only because the fight was looking more hopeless than ever before, but because the show itself early on seemed to be stumbling, with the characters starting to repeat themselves without progressing at all through their issues.  At the midpoint, the season then hit a series low point, in my opinion, when an episode brought back a recurring female character (and love interest for Dean) and made her turn evil all of a sudden for no good reason, just so they could kill her off in brutal fashion without viewers having to feel sad about it.

Remember when the Chuck "shippers" went absolutely ballistic and threatened to boycott the show because this season placed two temporary competing romantic interests between the hero and heroine, as if no other story had ever made its destined lovers wander before coming to the realization that they were meant for each other?  And these were the same diehard fans who had fought so hard to prevent the show's cancellation a year ago?  Well, what's sick is that Supernatural, a show with two brothers as its only main characters, goes through the same thing, with "Wincest" shippers responding with venom to every single female love interest ever featured on the show.  And while Kripke has playfully used the show itself to mock such fans, he has also yielded to them by consistently bailing mid-arc on recurring female characters.  In fact, history now suggests that any female character who appears on more than three episodes is probably headed toward a bad end.  Of course, it's a little amazing that Supernatural has lasted this long, considering that its ratings have never been stellar, so maybe the CW and Kripke just happen to see the value in this deviant demographic that no other show seems to hit so well.

But I think the "Wincest" loonies actually have it right to an extent, although they are also wrong to a much greater extent.  Sam and Dean don't need any women getting in their way, because romance of any sort is the last thing this show needs.  Always the core of the show, the bond between Sam and Dean Winchester is possibly the strongest I've ever witnessed in a television series (bearing in mind I haven't seen every episode of Xena: Warrior Princess), and any attempts to get other people between them have only ever diluted that core to the show's detriment.  These were characters who had already literally died for one another in past seasons, but when this season rebounded in its second half, it really showed, more importantly, that it is for each other that they live.

Thinking back again to Buffy, it always seemed to me that Buffy would have left behind her friends and family in order to be with Angel, but at the same time, she would also have given up Angel for her friends.  Somehow, even though she was being pulled by these equally strong yet seemingly mutually exclusive attachments, the choice between them never seemed as difficult as one might have imagined, and ultimately she would operate, like a soldier, according to sense rather than her feelings, which she would never fully sort out.  Or maybe, whatever she seemed to be giving up, she would always be able to go on and find something else, because although the other characters gave her support, her life was still her own.

For Dean Winchester, there is nothing else besides his brother, except in some fantastic dream that he has never allowed himself to believe in.  Contributing to the bleakness this season was his assertion that, win or lose the current fight, there was no happy ending waiting for him.  There would just be another fight, and another, and another after that, until he either got himself killed or went crazy.  But as long as he had Sam with him, it never seemed like a bad life.  Then, at the end of the road, his heaven would be reliving those most cherished memories of the times he spent with his brother.

As for Sam, the hopeful brother who did imagine their mission someday ending in victory, I think we saw this season that, for all his talk of wanting to live a normal life apart from his family's business, for all his supernatural power and self-sacrificing bravado, it was ultimately and always his love for his brother that gave him strength and the will to overcome anything, including the despair that had come to consume the show.  Against all odds, he then used that strength to earn the story as happy and perfect an ending as it could ever have hoped for.

Yet Supernatural, likewise against all odds and Eric Kripke's own expectations, will be back for a sixth season.  I don't know where else the story can possibly go to raise the stakes further.  Things may be different, and that's a little scary, but maybe we can once again compare it to Buffy and consider the UPN years of that show.  Those later Marti Noxon-helmed seasons perhaps never quite returned to the heights of season five, but they still included some great episodes and were better at least than having no Buffy at all.  At least Sam and Dean will be back, and they are all the show really needs.

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