This is a wayyyyyyy overdue review for Marsha L., who generously donated and sponsored it months ago. (Commissioned post #5 out of…I’ve totally lost count; there are a lot now.) SPOILERS AHOY!!!
I was only in season 3 at the time that this was sponsored, and I was watching along with my favorite reviewer/blogger Mark Oshiro of www.markwatches.net (check him out!), so that accounts for some of the delay. But then I finally got up to this episode when Mark reached it at least a month and a half ago, but I still didn’t watch it because I was super busy and wanted to sit down and watch it with my full attention, so as to properly review it. And by the time I had a chance to do that, I had practically forgotten what was going on in the season and decided that before watching the finale, I should rewatch the previous episode, Two Minutes to Midnight, so I wouldn’t be totally lost.
Aaaaand…I kinda wish I hadn’t done that.
Because as I was watching the finale, I realized that a big problem I had with it was that I found the setup so much more interesting than the payoff.
See, the past few seasons have been constantly introducing new and fascinating elements that expand upon the universe of Supernatural, flesh out its very nature, and what tasks have been set for our heroes.
Non-comprehensive list of super intriguing elements introduced in the past couple of seasons:
- Angels exist
- Angels are actually jerkfaces who want to bring the apocalypse
- God exists
- God is actually a jerkface who doesn’t want to help stop the apocalypse
- Castiel has become a rogue angel and gradually loses his powers
- The trickster from earlier years is actually the angel Gabriel
- The archangel Michael wants Dean as his vessel
- The devil, Lucifer, wants Sam as his vessel
- John Winchester had another son, who died
- jk, the angels totes brought him back as a substitute vessel
- There’s this dude named Chuck who’s written a bazillion books on the Winchester adventures, including stuff that he can’t possibly know, thinking it’s all fiction he’s inventing
- Chuck is actually a Prophet of the Lord and sees what will happen to the Winchesters before it happens
- The four horsemen of the apocalypse exist
- The four horsemen are actually superpowered dudes who wear rings and drive awesome Mustangs (because HORSES, geddit??)
- The four rings from the four horsemen can put Lucifer back in his devil-cage in hell
- Both Sam and the Death the Horseman think the only chance to get Lucifer back in his cage is for Sam to allow Lucifer to possess him, and then overpower Lucifer’s possession enough to jump into the cage
…and that’s what you missed on Glee! Er, Supernatural!
All these elements are firmly established going into the Season 5 finale, because, as Marsha told me when she sponsored this review, this is what the writers have been building toward for 5 seasons. And I understand that, I understand that this episode already has all the pieces laid out on the table and is just moving them around.
But that doesn’t change the fact that after all the fantastic developments we get in the preceding seasons, and even the preceding episode, we don’t learn anything nearly as new or intriguing here. Honestly, that 5-minute scene between Dean and Death the Horseman in Two Minutes to Midnight was more compelling to me than just about anything that happened in the finale.
I am NOT saying that the finale wasn’t entertaining (it was!), that it wasn’t immensely watchable (it was!), or that nothing surprising happens in this episode at all (it did — for instance, Lucifer knowing about the Winchesters’ plans with the horsemen’s rings and Dean’s “oh crap we are so screwed” face was a definite highlight). But the surprises are all on a plot level, regarding what is happening; the whys of everything remain just as opaque as before. There are no lightbulb moments, no epiphanies. Our level of understanding of why this is all happening is the same going into the episode as it is coming out. It doesn’t add up to anything more than a bunch of things that had to happen so that there would be a TV show.
Still, okay. It’s a TV show, an entertaining ride of conflict, resolution, drama, and humor — that’s what I signed up for, I guess. Ideally, the show could aim higher, considering the vast realm of religion and mythology that it has chosen to use as its playground, but it falls short of that. I get that sometimes as a writer, you bite off more than you can chew, set up more than you can pay off, and as a TV writer, you’re under a special kind of pressure to keep churning out episodes, and if there’s an arc and you think of something great later, it’s not like you can go back and plant it in earlier episodes, because they’ve already aired, so your continuity may suffer more than the continuity of a novel or a movie, which can be edited as a finished product before any of it is released to the public. So things in serialized TV often come out as less than that fabulous lofty ideal. I get that.
But what bothers me so much more than that is the fact that the writers KNOW it doesn’t add up, and they actively dismiss the viewers’ perfectly legitimate potential complaints about it, right there in the show. I’m referring, of course, to this monologue by Chuck the Prophet (whose narration in this episode I initially adored but eventually found problematic for several reasons, which I am about to enumerate):
“Any chapped-ass monkey with a keyboard can poop out a beginning, but endings are impossible. You try to tie up every loose end, but you never can. The fans are always gonna bitch. There’s always gonna be holes. And since it’s the ending, it’s all supposed to add up to something. I’m telling you, they’re a raging pain in the ass.”
Oh em gee, fans are so annoying, amirite? Them and their perfectly valid analyses and critiques of our storytelling and plotting and endings that mean they spent at least as much time thinking about the show as we did. Jeez, stop thinking, sheeple! Just worship unquestioningly at the altar of our creativity! Feel for us! We worked hard on this show, dammit!
It’s not the most audience-condescending monologue that I’ve ever seen on a TV show (that medal still goes to Aaron Sorkin and his thoroughly gratuitous diatribe against fandom [“that’s not being a fan; that’s having a fetish”] through Josh Lyman on The West Wing), but it’s in the top two. I mean, fall short and have a subpar finale if you must, but sheesh, be less obvious and defensive about it. Don’t complain about how hard endings are and how hard writing is; this is literally your job and no one wants to hear you whine about it. Of course finales come with expectations. Suck it up!
Naturally, this activated my contrarianism. I might possibly have been more forgiving if I hadn’t been told directly by the writers that I should be forgiving. As it is, I now feel more justified in complaining a bit more, so sit tight!
My two main complaints, one of which is even broken down into subcategories:
Problems with Chuck’s narration
- Insults audience for critiquing. Bad, show. BAD.
- Turns the car into the ultimate symbol of Winchester brotherhood by talking about stuff we’ve never seen on the show before, like the toy soldier stuck in the car door, the initials carved into the car, etc. I love car porn as much (or possibly more) than the next guy, but we’ve seen this car in every episode for 5 years and the writers couldn’t think of one previously established thing about it that could actually carry the emotional weight they’re slapping together and shoehorning in here at the last second? It feels like telling instead of showing. It feels lazy. It feels like a retcon to try and squeeze emotion from a place that doesn’t really have it in the way the writers want it to, and I was not impressed.
- It spells out the incredibly uninspired lesson of the whole shindig in this other monologue:
“So, what’s it all add up to? It’s hard to say. But me, I’d say this was a test… for Sam and Dean. And I think they did all right. Up against good, evil, angels, devils, destiny, and God himself, they made their own choice. They chose family. And, well… isn’t that kinda the whole point?”
Seriously? It was about choosing family? Wow. You know what other episode of Supernatural was about choosing family?
What’s that you say? “Every damn episode”? That is correct.
Obviously there’s nothing wrong with a moral of choosing family first in the face of dire danger. But in the context of this show, it’s deeply unsurprising because we’ve seen it so many times and expect nothing less. Having no narration would have been an improvement on pretending that this particular lesson is some kind of ultimate meaning.
In fact, having no narration at all would fix all these problems, and I do think that the car stuff could have been done better by using unnarrated flashbacks. But they’ve done that before and this is a season finale so the narration is the writers’ way of doing something new and different stylistically just for that, regardless of whether previously-used techniques would work better.
- Problems with the whole destiny thing
This, to be fair, is a problem I have with a lot of shows, and it’s more of a whole season problem than just this episode. Essentially, I don’t like being lied to about how much you planned for something, writers. I know and you know that you didn’t plan plenty of it, that you made up a lot of stuff as you went along — as I said before, it’s a reality of episodic TV, you have to work quickly, you can’t plan that far ahead, and you certainly can’t go back and set things up if you just came up with some new brilliant idea or new character, and I accept that! What I don’t accept is when a show lies to me about it, pretends that this was totally the plan all along yessireebob.
Angel did this a lot in later seasons and it bugged me, and it bugs me here too, every time that the angels or Lucifer claim that this is how it was always meant to be, that brother was always meant to fight brother, and especially that Azazel chose Sam for Lucifer and the devil has been keeping tabs on Sam through demon spies for his entire life because he is Lucifer’s ultimate vessel — gimme a break. Azazel put Sam in that Hunger Games thing at the end of Season 2, yes? The one where Sam DIED? There was nothing special about Sam then, not any more special than the other demon-blood children — he was expendable, one of many potentials. If Dean hadn’t brought Sam back with his crossroads deal, presumably whoever survived that survival-of-the-fittest contest would have been deemed Lucifer’s vessel. But did all of them have brothers that Michael could have inhabited to fight Lucifer, as per the brother-vs-brother destiny? What if Lucifer’s vessel had been a woman? WHAT THEN, SHOW.
Basically, you have to scrap anything that happened before a certain point if you want this destiny thing to make sense, unless you modify it and say that yeah, Sam was one potential and now he’s the only one left. But that’s not what the show did. It lied and retconned, and hoped that we would conveniently forget about the not-making-sense part, or figured that they could say, “WE’RE not saying that Sam was the plan all along; the ANGELS are! And LUCIFER! Can’t trust those douchefaces; of course they’re lying. Don’t blame us!” Weak, writers. Very weak. I’m fine with you pulling things out of your posteriors once in a while; just don’t lie to me about it.
Again, I don’t want you to finish this review thinking that I hated the finale. I definitely didn’t hate it; it’s just not an episode I feel compelled to rewatch anytime soon because there are so many episodes leading up to it that I enjoyed more. And I’m very glad that the show didn’t end here, because if it had, I’d have been disappointed, because this is not a great ending.
For the record, it is absolutely 100% better to have excellent setup and so-so payoff than to have poor setup and epic payoff. I disliked the book Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell for that reason — it was 600 pages of setup and 200 pages of payoff, and the setup was so uninteresting to me and such a chore to get through because it felt like I was just waiting and waiting and waiting for something to finally happen, and then it finally did, and it was good payoff, but I remember none of it, because all I remember was how bored I was for most of it and how I kept waiting for it to get good.
With Supernatural, I’m sure that in a few years I won’t remember the specifics of the plot of these past few seasons, but what I will remember is how fascinated I was by the gradual expansion of its fictional universe with all the new and surprising elements that caught my interest, and I’ll remember the characters and their dynamics, and I’ll remember liking so many more episodes than not, and I’d say that’s definitely a win for any show.